Science and Health

HIV prevention drug on trial in Kenya soon to be available to general public

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Youth commemorate World Aids Day. Scientists have been researching preventive drugs for over three decades. PHOTO | FILE

Youth commemorate World Aids Day. Scientists have been researching preventive drugs for over three decades. PHOTO | FILE  

By CHRISTABEL LIGAMI

Posted  Sunday, March 6  2016 at  09:30

In Summary

  • About 1,000 commercial sex workers are already using the newly-approved HIV/Aids combination therapy drug Truvada (emtricitabine and tenofovir), ahead of its rollout scheduled for later this year.
  • Known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and used as an antiretroviral drug, Truvada works by inhibiting the key enzyme, reverse transcriptase, which the HIV virus needs to infect host cells, effectively blocking infection.
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Kenyans could, before the end of this year, have access to a drug that protects them from HIV infection in what is being seen as a major breakthrough in the fight against the disease.

About 1,000 commercial sex workers are already using the newly-approved HIV/Aids combination therapy drug Truvada (emtricitabine and tenofovir), ahead of its rollout scheduled for later this year.

Known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and used as an antiretroviral drug, Truvada works by inhibiting the key enzyme, reverse transcriptase, which the HIV virus needs to infect host cells, effectively blocking infection.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis means the drug is taken before exposure to risk of infection. Once taken, the drug is effective for eight hours.

Kenya approved the drug last year, becoming the second country in Africa, after South Africa, to allow its use.

Following the approval, three organisations are conducting demonstration trials on the drug for one year in Nairobi, Kisumu and Homa Bay. The Sex Worker Outreach Programme (SWOP) provides male and female sex workers with daily doses of Truvada in Nairobi and Kisumu; Liverpool VCT Care and Treatment (LVCT) is conducting its demonstration trials in Nairobi, Kisumu and Homa Bay, and the US Centres for Disease Control is conducting trials in Homa Bay.

The Kenya National Aids and STIs Control Programme (NASCOP) is working with the three organisations to conduct a one year demonstration trials on PrEP to determine if the drug Truvada is as effective as the initial trials indicated and if it can be rolled out into the market.

'Combine with safe sex practices'

Last year, the Kenya Pharmacy and Poisons Board approved the use of Truvada as PrEP in combination with safe sex practices to help reduce the risk of sexually acquired HIV infection.

“This means that the drug can now be used as both a preventive and treatment drug for HIV,” said Kipkerich Koskei, the chief pharmacist and registrar at the board.

“PrEP is safe and works to prevent HIV infection, but only if taken effectively as directed by the health service provider,” said Wanjiru Mukoma, executive director of Kenya’s LVCT. “The public needs to get as much information as possible prior to using the drug. Those taking the drug need to be HIV-negative,” she added.

According to Jordan Kyombo, the LVCT research manager, the sex workers undergo medical screening before they are enrolled in the demonstration trials. They are then given pills to last them a month.

“The pills are packed in a white can with a memory cap — Mem’s Cap — to remind the sex worker to take the drug,” said Mr Kyombo.

After a month, those on the drug undergo further screening to check the drug levels in their blood and confirm if they contracted HIV while on the drug.  “Once the trials are complete, research will be conducted to look into the concerns being raised by the sex workers, including the side effects, infrastructure issues, and the cost of rolling out PrEP across the country,” he added.

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