Alberta should fund HIV drug now, says Edmonton health collective
Edmonton Men's Health Collective launches campaign for PrEP funding
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Albertans have waited too long for coverage of a drug that could prevent the spread of HIV, one advocacy group says.
The Edmonton Men’s Health Collective posted an online resource this week advocating for the government to fund PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), along with survey results that show many Albertans have issues accessing the pill that acts like a vaccine.
“In areas where PrEP access has expanded, we’ve seen massive drops in HIV infection from year to year,” said Brook Biggin with the collective, adding the most recent numbers from Alberta show about 24 people are getting infected every month.
“There’s no doubt that each month the government delays funding PrEP there are Albertans who are newly infected with HIV whose infections could have been prevented if they had access to medication.”
The collective conducted two surveys of gay, bisexual, transgender and queer males in the province and found the community has very high knowledge of PrEP and high interest in taking it, but ran into barriers with cost and with healthcare providers not being knowledgeable.
When the surveys were conducted, however, Truvada was the only drug available and it cost $1,000 a month.
Since then, generic versions have come available for as low as $250 a month, prompting Ontario and B.C. to join Quebec in offering some funding.
“With the generic being so much more affordable, there really is no good reason why Alberta would not follow suit,” Biggin said.
Men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by HIV, but other groups including Indigenous populations, transgender individuals and people who inject drugs, are also at high risk.
PrEP is actually free of charge for Indigenous Albertans, but Biggin said few people seem to be aware of that.
The Alberta government released a document just last month discussing HIV rates among Indigenous populations, but while it mentions condoms as a prevention mechanism it makes no mention of PrEP.
Dr. Ameeta Singh, an infectious disease specialist in Edmonton, said data shows PrEP is “probably the single most important intervention in terms of HIV prevention since the condom.”
While the drug may not be cheap, she said it’s estimated that each new case of HIV infection costs Alberta’s healthcare system $1 million throughout the infected individual’s lifetime.
“If we prevent enough HIV infections, there ultimately will be cost savings in the long run,” she said.
Biggin said he is confident the Alberta government will offer some form of funding, but he expects an uproar from the LGBTQ community if it doesn't happen soon.
“At LGBTQ events this summer, like Pride, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see some sort of community protest,” he said.
Alberta Health spokesperson Rob Gereghty sent Metro an e-mailed statement saying the government is completing an evaluation process to assess possible coverage of Truvada and generics for PrEP.
"There are a number of considerations that must be taken into account during this evaluation including who may be covered, how the drug may be accessed, potential costs to patients and government, and more," he said. "This process is underway and will be concluded in the coming months. Based upon the conclusion of the evaluation a final decision regarding coverage will follow."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the response from Alberta Health.