Labor has used the occasion of Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to pressure the federal government to expand access to a game-changing HIV drug and make it available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the use of drugs before exposure to prevent infection, is being hailed as a silver bullet in the fight against HIV. The drug used in HIV PrEP, Truvada, has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for use in Australia, and is currently being used in several trials across the country for people at high risk of contracting HIV, but it was last year rejected for inclusion on the PBS. This means that Truvada is available in Australia, but its price is prohibitively high for many who would benefit from it, including an estimated 31,000 people who meet the 'high risk' criteria.
PrEP studies and trials are currently underway in several states, with around 8000 people involved, but Labor leader Bill Shorten said he was concerned that there are many people not able to be enrolled in the trials and therefore not able to access the drug. On Saturday, to coincide with Sydney's Mardi Gras celebration, Shorten wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asking for the government to intervene and ensure PrEP is listed on the PBS, and to expand trials of the drug in Australia.
Shorten's letter, also signed by deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and shadow health minister Catherine King, asks the PM to:
support equitable access to PrEP across Australia by coordinating an expansion of existing state and territory clinical PrEP trials to include all jurisdictions;
work with the states and territories to ensure that equitable access to PrEP is available for all Australians at high risk of HIV, including by ensuring that sufficient trial places are available for all those who are eligible;
encourage pharmaceutical manufacturers to move ahead with submissions for PrEP listing on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods and the PBS; and
Should this be the case, encourage manufacturers and the PBAC to work together to move submissions through the PBAC process without undue delays.
"You would be aware that for HIV negative people who are at high risk of HIV, PrEP has been proven to be highly effective in preventing HIV transmission," Shorten wrote.
"Australia has a proud history in HIV care, treatment, research, and prevention. Our response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s brought our public health response into the mainstream and changed practice around the world. From our perspective, better access to PrEP is the next phase in this public health response and a critical component of getting to zero, along with regular testing and Treatment as Prevention (TasP)."
King added further weight to the call.
"Labor knows that PrEP has the potential be a game changer, it's an issue I'm following closely. I've had many conversations with experts across the community and I believe that more needs to be done to boost access to PrEP. There are things that can be done immediately," she told The Huffington Post Australia.