Only a third of gay men and one in six
heterosexual people who came forward for a rapid HIV community testing programme were
aware of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a Spanish study has found.
Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) needs to be
distinguished from pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP): it involves starting a
course of HIV therapy – usually a month’s worth – as soon as possible
after a high-risk exposure to HIV in order to prevent an infection becoming established.
Studies suggest PEP can prevent at least four out of five infections if started
within 48 hours of exposure. The latest
UK guidelines on administering PEP were published in 2011.
The findings of the study, which gathered
data between June 2009 and July 2010, contrasts with 56% of
gay men knowing about PEP in the UK Gay Men’s Sex Survey of 2007 (Hickson, which gathered data in 2006) and almost
universal knowledge amongst gay men in Australia in 2005 (Grulich). This is
despite PEP being freely available in hospital emergency departments in Spain
since 1998 and the
most recent Spanish guidelines being issued in 2008.
There are two reasons for lower awareness
in the Spanish survey, which in fact matches the level of awareness in a study
conducted in New York. Firstly, the surveys with the highest awareness tend to
include HIV-positive participants, and the Spanish study excluded them; but
secondly, there has been no public awareness campaign about PEP in Spain, in
contrast to the UK and Australia, and people are only going to find out about
it from a clinician when they go for an HIV test.
Another distinctive aspect of this study is
that very few surveys have assessed knowledge of PEP amongst heterosexual people,
even though in practice in Europe a higher number of
heterosexual couples have requested it than gay men, sometimes
The Spanish survey assessed PEP knowledge
as part of a programme of rapid HIV testing in the community, which also
home-testing feasibility study reported recently on aidsmap.com.
The programme offered free rapid HIV tests in vans
placed in various locations in Spain: in the middle of Madrid’s 'gay village';
in two suburban towns; and in cities in the Canary Islands and the south-east
In total, 2545 people were tested, with
roughly a third each gay and bisexual men (34%), heterosexual men (30%) and
women (35%); 3% had ever injected drugs. Over a quarter came from outside
Spain, mainly from Latin America. Slightly more than half, and a clear majority
of women, were under 30.
Half of the participants had previously had
an HIV test (three-quarters of gay men, 42% of heterosexual men and 36% of
women). Nearly 60% of gay men had tested more than once but only one in four
heterosexual men and one in six women.
Overall, 22% of participants had heard of
PEP; 34% of gay men but only 16.5% of heterosexual men or women. Among the
whole group, the 20% of people who were from Latin America were less likely to
know about PEP than native Spaniards, though the small number of people (about
5%) from other European and developed countries were more likely to know about
Knowledge of PEP in heterosexual people was
largely dependent on their having been tested for HIV, with people who had more
than one HIV test being twice as likely to know about it than those who had
never tested. Amongst gay men, knowledge of PEP was half as likely in the 23% of
men who said they were “non-scene” and nearly twice as likely in university graduates.
Men with more than ten partners in the last year were nearly three times as
likely to know about PEP and men who largely met partners on the internet were
50% more likely.
Only 48 individuals in the survey (2%) had
ever taken PEP: 23 gay men, 12 heterosexual men and 13 women.
Gay men were statistically no more likely
to have taken PEP than heterosexuals, although numbers are so small as to make
meaningful comparisons difficult; interestingly, a quarter of the gay men and
60% of the women who had taken PEP had done so for “non-sexual reasons”, possibly
for occupational exposure. When PEP was taken for sexual exposure, it was
largely prescribed appropriately; 70% had taken it for what the Spanish
guidelines define as high-risk sex, and 58% for anal sex (one gay man took it
for oral sex). Sixty per cent of people sought PEP because they had not used a
condom and regretted it, rather than because of condom failure.
Pointing out that “there has been no
structured effort to broadcast [PEP’s] existence among the population” in
Spain, the researchers urge that: “Promotion of the availability of PEP, and of
its value following unprotected sex or...condom breakage or slippage, should be
made an important element of prevention programmes.”