PrEP is not just for gay men – it’s for everyone, hetero women included

PrEP is an HIV-prevention drug that can protect people from contracting HIV. It is used widely in the gay male population, but this drug is for everyone, including women.

PrEP – pre-exposure prophylaxis

A large-scale trial involving 8,000 men who have sex with men and 2,000 women and other high-risk groups struggled to find women to participate in the study. The male spaces filled up, with men being turned away, where as women weren’t signing up at all.

This remains the case today, despite the success of the drug – women aren’t taking it, and are still contracting HIV in dire numbers.

The study was a stand-out success, with PrEP found to be highly effective at preventing HIV infection. According to United Nations data, there are an estimated 17.8 million women living with HIV (aged 15 and older), making up half of all adults living with HIV. This isn’t a gay men’s issue; it’s a human issue, and it affects women even in developed countries.

There are enormous numbers of new HIV diagnoses every year, and in some places – Australia, the paradise down under, for example – HIV rates are actually climbing, going from about 600 new infections in 2000 to over 900 in 2005. In these numbers, about 65 per cent are men who have sex with men, and intravenous drug users, leaving a whopping 35 per cent being ‘other’. Heterosexuals, lesbians, trans people, women, men.

There are always generalisations about who catches HIV – drug users, sex workers, gay men – and while those generalisations remain true, those groups are not the only people becoming newly infected with HIV. Young women are the most at risk in all the below statistics.

If you think this doesn’t affect you, think again.

  • In the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, New Zealand, Pacific island communities), women account for 31 per cent of new HIV infections
  • In Western and Central Europe and North America this number is 23 per cent
  • In Eastern Europe and Central Asia women account for 42 per cent of new infections
  • In the Middle East and North Africa, 28 per cent
  • Sub-Saharan Africa women make up 56 per cent of new infections
  • In the Caribbean, 45 per cent of new infections are in women
  • In Latin America, women make up 28 per cent of new infections
  • In the United Kingdom, 30 per cent of all HIV infections are women

PrEP could change the risk profile for many women, so why aren’t women taking it?

Most coverage of PrEP has been directed at gay men, so women largely don’t know about it as an option for them.

There is also a lack of information and support for women, which is being combated by Invisible No More, a trans-inclusive organisation for HIV-positive women.

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Jessica Lloyd - Vulvovaginal Specialist Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)