South Africa has become only the second country in the world to allow widespread access to groundbreaking HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis medication.
On Tuesday, Medicines Control Council (MCC) helped secure South Africa’s leading position on the continent in the fight against Aids. In one press release they have allowed a new, extremely easy to use and powerful weapon to stop HIV-negative South Africans from ever contracting the virus. The MCC has officially registered the use of a combination pill of two anti-retroviral drugs as a form of pre-exposure prophylaxis (or “PrEP”) medication; a pill taken once a day that massively reduces the chances of contracting the HIV.
To do this, the MCC, in collaboration with the department of health and a plethora of medical experts and civil society partners, moved determinedly once the efficacy and safety of these medications had been clearly established. South Africa, therefore, joins only one other country in the world, the United States, in allowing its citizens widespread access to this groundbreaking and formidable HIV prevention tool.
With South Africa’s high HIV burden, the deployment of this new intervention is profound. As of today, any general medical practitioner can prescribe PrEP. South Africans with private medical aid can motivate for PrEP to be covered by their medical plan. The department of health can now start developing policies for the scale up of PrEP in public sector clinics. The MCC’s ruling therefore blows open the door for far greater numbers of South Africans to access to this potentially life saving medication.
Yet with this vital new development in the fight against Aids it is now more crucial than ever that remaining barriers to accessing PrEP are removed. Fundamentally this means educating South Africans that PrEP exists and may help them personally and making sure that PrEP can be feasibly delivered in public healthcare settings.
Around the world we know that knowledge about PrEP is still limited. We must make sure in South Africa that all people at risk of HIV are told accurately what PrEP can do, how it should be taken and where it can be accessed.
Equally, we must make sure that nurses have the necessary skills and tools to be able to roll out PrEP in public healthcare settings across South Africa. South Africa’s Anova Health Institute, in collaboration with the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, is currently implementing the largest state sector housed demonstration project for the use of PrEP. This project, taking place in Cape Town and Johannesburg, will gain the vital experience necessary to enable the department of health to take PrEP to scale.
Together, South Africans have come an extremely long way in the fight against the greatest epidemic ever to effect us. Today’s statement by the national medical regulator is yet another indication that one day we will beat HIV. Yet among the celebration, we must also remain vigilant. We must make sure that now that this new weapon has been granted to us that we use it judiciously and that those who want to use it have the necessary abilities to do so.
Andrew Tucker, Kevin Rebe, Benjamin Brown, James McIntyre work as technical experts for the Anova Health Institute.