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Irish Examiner 28/03/2006

Twenty-five years after the first AIDS cases jolted the world, US scientists think they soon may have the pill that could prevent HIV, the virus that causes the disease.

"This is the first thing I've seen at this point that could have a prevention impact", said Thomas Folkes, head of the HIV lab at the US centre for Disease Control and Prevention. "If it works, it could be distributed quickly and could blunt the epidemic". 

Two drugs that have been used to treat HIV infection have shown such promise in monkeys that officials have said thay would expand early human tests worlwide. The drugs are Tenofovir (Viread) and Emtricitabine or FTC (Emtriva), sold in combination by Truvada by Gilead Sciences Inc., a California company best known for inventing Tamiflu, a drug showing promise against bird flu.

If larger tests are as effective on humans, they  they could be given to those at highest risk of HIV. Condoms and counselling alone have not been enough - HIV spreads to 10 people every minute, 5 million every year.  A vaccine remains the best hope but none is in sight. mathew Bell, a 32 manager in San Francisco who has volunteered for a safety study on one of the drugs has welcomed the drug as an added precaution to safe sex.

"If I thought there was a fall back parachute, a preventative, I would definately want to add to that." But some fear that this could make things worse. "I've had people make comments to me, 'Aren't you just making the world safer for unsafe sex'" said Dr Lynn Paxton of the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. But some uninfected gay men already are getting the drug from friends with AIDS or doctors willing to prescribe them to patients who admit to not using condoms. This kind of use could lead to drug resistance in infected and uninfected alike, and is one reason why people are rushing  to expand the studies.

Unlike vaccines which boost the immune system - the very thing HIV destroys - AIDS drugs keep the virus from reproducing. Scientists believe taking them daily or weekly before exposure to HIV -  the time frame is not known - may stop it developing. Early results so excited scientists that private and government funders alike have been looking at ways to expand human testing.