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PEP: Protecting you against HIV when you need it

Had a possible HIV exposure? Knowing about PEP – Post-Exposure Prophylaxis – and how to get it fast could prevent you or a mate from acquiring HIV

Condoms… they’re really useful. But they’re not always around when you want one, sometimes they break and sometimes we just don’t put one on. Regardless of how you might have been exposed to HIV, there is a way you can significantly reduce your chance of acquiring it even after the event.

It’s called PEP, or Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, and knowing that it exists and how to access it in an emergency could help prevent you or someone you care about from becoming HIV positive.

What is it?

PEP is a one-month course of anti-HIV drugs intended to prevent someone from acquiring HIV after possible exposure to the virus.

Ever heard of the morning after pill that helps prevent pregnancy? Although it’s a little more involved, some people have likened it to that, but for HIV prevention instead.

PEP is a one-month course of anti-HIV drugs intended to prevent someone from acquiring HIV after possible exposure to the virus.

The type of drugs used for PEP have improved over the years and they do a great job of preventing people from acquiring HIV. Since as far back as 1990, it’s not uncommon for healthcare workers who had an accident at work that could have left them exposed to HIV to be given PEP. Nowadays you can also benefit from using PEP if your risk of exposure has been as a result of sex, or from sharing injecting equipment.

Does it work?

Although there has never been a randomised trial where 50 per cent of people got PEP and 50 per cent of people got a placebo pill to test how effective PEP is in the real world, other types of studies suggest that PEP can be very effective in preventing HIV infection. However, you’ve got to act fast. For PEP to stand a good chance of working it must be taken within 72 hours after exposure, and ideally, as soon as possible.

PEP is an exceptionally good way to minimise the chance of becoming HIV positive as long as you remember to take it every day for the entire month.

What about side effects?

Even with the modern drugs used for PEP, there’s a small chance of side effects, but you’ll be relieved to hear they’re not guaranteed for everyone and are typically short lived if you do get any.

Some people might experience mild nausea when they start a course of PEP and this usually settles within a week. Taking your PEP after a decent meal can also help.

For PEP to stand a good chance of working it must be taken within 72 hours after exposure, and ideally, as soon as possible.

Just in case you’re concerned about how you might feel, you can also ask about anti-nausea medication on offer so you can be confident in getting on with your day as normal.

How to get PEP

You can access PEP at the emergency departments of many public hospitals, sexual health clinics and various other doctors that specialise in gay men’s health and HIV. Remember to call in advance to make it clear that you want PEP. If it’s out of regular working hours, going to the emergency department might be your best option.

It’s possible that medical staff won’t instantly know what PEP is, so be prepared to explain your situation. Some states and territories have PEP information phone lines you can call to speak to the hospital on your behalf.

The Get PEP website has information on how to get PEP closest to wherever you’re based in Australia, as well as PEP information phone lines. Offering to show the website to medical staff can help them provide you with the best possible treatment.

Emen8 has also produced guides on how you can get PEP in all states and territories:

When talking about how you might have been exposed to HIV, you could be asked about the kind of sex you had, whether you used condoms, and if you know the HIV status of the person you were with. Although that might seem quite personal, it’s important for the medical staff to assess the seriousness of the situation. Their questions are meant to help you and not judge you, so you can feel comfortable about being honest – remember it’s all about making sure your long term health is well protected.

If the person you were with is HIV positive and maintaining an undetectable viral load, then you might not need PEP. Providing this and as much other information about your situation as possible will help medical staff decide what’s best for you.

What next?

Sometimes you’ll be given a full month’s supply of PEP on the spot. If you’re given a starter kit, expect to book a follow up appointment to get the rest of your drugs later. Then it’s as simple as taking PEP every day for a month. Setting a daily reminder on your phone is a handy way to make sure you remember to take it.

Completing the entire course of PEP is important to improve its goal of keeping you HIV negative.

Ask your healthcare professional about getting follow up HIV tests at the end of the course and again at 12 weeks after a possible exposure.

Completing the entire course of PEP is important to improve its goal of keeping you HIV negative.

While you’re finishing off your course of PEP, it’s best to use condoms for any sex you might have. If you find that consistently using condoms isn’t happening for any reason, then talk to your GP, sexual health professional or local AIDS Council about PrEP.

What’s PrEP?

In the same way that PEP is somewhat similar to the morning after pill, then you could think of PrEP as a bit like the birth control pill. PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, is a highly effective HIV prevention strategy involving a program of using prescribed drugs once a day to protect you against HIV. PrEP allows you to take control of your own health and protection, and it works around the clock regardless of the choices you make.

Much like PEP, it also involves the use of anti-HIV drugs to protect you against HIV. PrEP is different because you take it before the possibility of exposure to HIV on an ongoing basis for as long as you choose to be protected by it.

If you’ve already been on a course of PEP, you can benefit from a smooth transition to PrEP as your body is already well adjusted to taking the medication. With an ongoing PrEP program, you won’t have to go through the process of getting PEP again, which should hopefully be as much of a relief as knowing you’re protected.

AIDS Councils, LGBTI health organisations and community websites such as PrEP’D For Change and PAN (PrEPaccessNOW) have all the information you need about choosing if PrEP is right for you, and how to access it.

Summary

  • PEP significantly reduces your chance of acquiring HIV after exposure
  • Act fast – you must get it within 72 hours of exposure
  • Use this website to know how and where to get PEP
  • Gather and provide as much information as you can about your situation
  • Continue taking the full course of PEP as prescribed for one month
  • Consider choosing PrEP as a highly effective ongoing HIV prevention strategy

 

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