The word ‘HIV’ brings in its wake the fear of an incurable disease and lifelong social stigma in most people. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that progressively destroys the immune cells of an infected person. Over time, the infected person will have a diminished immune system. The final complicated destination known as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a condition where the person with HIV is no longer able to fight against daily infections.
Currently, there remains no cure for HIV infection. Once a person has gotten infected with HIV, they will have the infection for the rest of their life. HIV infection can be transmitted through unprotected sexual contact, body fluid, needle sharing, or blood transfusion with an infected person.
The silver lining here is that with the improvement of medical research and proper medical care, we can control HIV. Patients with HIV who are receiving prompt treatment can still live a long, good quality life.
In this article, we discuss the availability of PEP medication to reduce the risk of acquisition of HIV when a person may potentially be exposed to HIV. The awareness of PEP can be life-changing and life-saving.
What is PEP?
PEP, also known as post-exposure prophylaxis, is an anti-retroviral medication option that can be offered to a person to reduce the risk of HIV infection after potential exposure. PEP medication must be started within the first 72 hours (3 days) after exposure. This is time-sensitive, and the earlier you start on PEP, the better chance of avoiding getting HIV infection. Hence, every hour is important and may make a difference, so don’t take a chance on it!
It is also imperative to take note that though PEP (if taken correctly) significantly lowers a person’s risk of acquiring HIV, PEP does not 100% guarantee the prevention of HIV infection after exposure. You should still practise safe sex at all times.
When should I consider PEP?
You can consider the PEP option if you are concerned about a high-risk exposure to HIV within the last 72 hours.
High-risk HIV exposure includes unprotected penetrative sex (vaginal or anal sex) with:
- Partner(s) who have HIV
- Partner(s) who are men who have sex with men
- Partner(s) who are bisexual men
- Partner(s) who are sex workers
- Partner(s) who have a history of needle/syringe drug use
- Sexual assault
If you are unsure of your risk of exposure to HIV, please do not hesitate to reach out to your trusted healthcare professionals for further evaluation of your risk and whether you are a suitable candidate for PEP.
What is my risk of exposure to HIV infection?
A person’s risk of contracting HIV can be higher in situations such as:
- If you have an untreated STD
- If you have the presence of sores/ulcers/wounds over the genital or anal region
- The sexual partner’s HIV RNA load is high or has an untreated HIV status (in particular, the early and late stages of untreated HIV)
- If you are sharing syringes, needles, or injections with a person with HIV
The risk of acquiring HIV infection also depends on the type of sexual intercourse a person engages in.
The risk increases (from left to right):
Insertive vaginal sex < receptive vaginal sex < insertive anal sex < receptive anal sex
The risk of HIV transmission in oral sex is low, with no actual accurate estimation of risk. However, there are HIV cases documented through oral sex; if there is a history of receptive oral intercourse with ejaculation, it is worth discussing with your physician about taking PEP.
Sources such as blood and body fluid secretion such as vaginal fluid, semen, and breast milk may transmit HIV. Sources such as saliva, tears, sweat, urine and faeces are not able to transmit HIV. The risk of HIV with other activities such as sharing sex toys, biting, touching semen, and saliva is very low and negligible.
If you have any concerns about your HIV risk of exposure, please consult your doctor as soon as possible time, as PEP is only effective within the first 72 hours after exposure.
What does PEP entail?
PEP consists of a combination of anti-retroviral medications. Drugs that have been recommended in PEP include:
- Tenofovir/emtricitabine (Truvada) and Raltegravir (Isentress)
- Tenofovir/emtricitabine (Truvada) and Dolutegravir (Tivicay)
- Single drug- Tenofovir/Emtricitabine and Bictegravir (Biktarvy)
It is important to inform your doctor of your medical and medication history. This will ensure your doctor prescribes the suitable PEP medications for you.
How effective is PEP?
PEP is clinically proven to be effective in reducing the risk of HIV infection in a person who is exposed to HIV if it is started within 2 hours (ideally) and not later than 72 hours after exposure.
Upon exposure to HIV via the skin and mucous membrane, the virus will replicate in the macrophages (a type of white cell that plays a role in maintaining the immune system by eating/engulfing pathogens such as bacteria and viruses). Following the next 2-3 days, the HIV viruses will continue to multiply and replicate in the surrounding lymph nodes. In 3-5 days, the virus will be disseminated into the bloodstream and other parts of the body. A person’s HIV infective status will then be established and irreversible.
By understanding the timeline and events that will eventually occur with HIV replication, we know that the PEP regimen is time-sensitive to block viral replication and has the best potency and effectiveness if given at the earliest possible time.
What are the common side effects of taking PEP?
The common side effects include lethargy, stomach upset, nausea and diarrhoea, and headache. Thankfully, the discomfort tends to be mild, and most patients can tolerate the full course of the PEP medications.
Rarely, PEP can affect a person’s liver function. Your doctor will usually recommend blood tests before and after the completion of PEP medication.
Speak to your doctor to understand more about the side effects and medication profiles of PEP.
What should I expect when I see my doctor for a PEP consultation?
Your doctor will obtain a relevant history to assess your risk of exposure to HIV. Your medical history is also essential to understand any medical condition or long-term medication that may interfere with the PEP medications. Your doctor will then offer you baseline blood tests before starting on PEP medication. You will also be counselled on the side effects to anticipate when you are on PEP.
What should I do after the completion of PEP?
Your doctor will usually schedule a follow-up appointment with you. You will be advised for blood tests upon completion of PEP to ensure you do not develop any long-term side effects from the medications. You will also be offered an HIV test to check your status at the end of the course of PEP. It is good practice to consider a comprehensive STD screening given the recent exposure risk.
Who is not suitable for PEP?
PEP is not suitable for a person who has repeated exposure risk to HIV from unprotected sex. As the name suggests, PEP is used only for emergency circumstances. In frequent high-risk exposure to HIV situations, one may discuss with your doctor about another option – PrEP.
PEP is also not suitable if you are known to be HIV positive or if you have a history of hepatitis. In view of the PEP regimen being a strong group of medications with potential side effects, you are advised to consult your doctor before commencing.
Can I take PEP every time I have frequent unprotected, risky sex?
No, you should only consider PEP during emergencies. If you are concerned about the repeated high risk of exposure from your sexual encounters, you should speak to your doctor to consider PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) HIV medication instead.
Key take-home message…
While HIV is incurable, PEP medication can be life-saving as it can effectively reduce the risk of HIV infection if given promptly within the first 72 hours of exposure. If you are uncertain about your encounter and considering PEP, contact your professional healthcare providers immediately. At Dr Ben Medical Clinic, we offer 24-hour PEP services; please do not hesitate to give us a call!
- DeHaan E, McGowan JP, Fine SM, et al. PEP to Prevent HIV Infection [Internet]. Baltimore (MD): Johns Hopkins University; 2022 Aug 11.
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