For the first time ever, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved a drug proven to reduce the risk of HIV infection. Called Truvada, the drug's approval marks a watershed in the fight to stem the continued spread of AIDS.
"It really marks a new era in HIV prevention because in adding Truvada as a prevention strategy, what comes with it is expanded access to HIV testing, condoms and prevention counseling and support," said James Deluca, vice president of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, in an interview with the Associated Press.
It's worth pointing out that Truvada is not a new drug. First approved in 2004, it's been used for years to treat people already infected with HIV, and is actually a combination of two other drugs commonly prescribed to slow the replication of the virus.
It wasn't until clinical trials, beginning in 2010, that scientists had the evidence they needed to show the treatment could work as a prevention tool, as well. In one study, daily doses of Truvada were shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection by 42 percent among HIV-negative individuals who regularly engaged in unprotected sex with more than one partner. A second trial involving heterosexual couples with one infected parter showed that daily treatment reduced risk of HIV infection by 75 percent when combined with condom use.
Not surprisingly, the FDA has made it clear that Truvada will be prescribed as part of a prevention plan that includes risk reduction counseling, HIV testing every three months, and regular condom use.
"It is exciting to consider the potential impact of this new HIV prevention tool, which could contribute to significantly reducing new HIV infections as part of a combination HIV prevention strategy," said Dr. Connie Celum, who led the trial involving heterosexual couples, in a statement.
But HIV prevention doesn't come cheap. At its current price, a year's worth of pills will set you back at least $13,900 — that's close to 40 dollars a pill. At that price, it's no wonder Truvada has become a blockbuster drug for pharmaceutical company Gilead, which markets the treatment.
Experts say 40 bucks a pill may be steep — but it's still likely cheaper than the alternative, especially for people whose regular sexual partners are HIV-positive:
"It is expensive," notes John's Hopkins University's Joel Gallant, "but on the other hand it's far cheaper than a lifetime of HIV treatment."
"If there are people who will not use condoms but are willing to use this, then for those people it's cost effective."