Everybody occasionally partakes in behavior that is potentially dangerous, whether this is intentional, such as casual unprotected sex, or unintentional, such as a workplace injury. The consequences of those actions can be scary, but perhaps the scariest of all consequences is transmitting a life-affecting virus such as HIV – and both of the previous examples could have this result. Of course, there are ways in which you can help protect yourself – avoiding risky situations where possible and following safety advice such as using condoms are a good start – but it’s impossible to avoid every potentially dangerous situation in life. Sometimes, risk of exposure to HIV is going to happen. So is there any way that transmission of HIV can be prevented after exposure? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes. PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, is a treatment given to those who have been exposed to a high risk of HIV transmission and it’s used as a preventative medication in order to stop the virus in its tracks.
What is PEP?
PEP is essentially an antiretroviral (ARV) therapy made up of a combination of one to three ARV drugs and is actually the same therapy used to treat HIV once transmitted. Originally only given to occupational exposures, such as needlestick injuries in health care workers, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) offered guidelines in 2005 for the use of PEP in non-occupational (nPEP) cases such as exposure through sexual activity or drug use as well. The treatment is given to those who test negatively for HIV and have been exposed to a high risk in a single case (ongoing exposure, such as a person with an HIV positive partner, is not normally treated with PEP, but with an alternative drug, PrEP – pre-exposure prophylaxis). In contrast to occupational PEP, nPEP is generally coupled with risk-reduction counselling and education in order to help patients learn from their damaging behavior. It is also only administered if treatment is sought within 72 hours of the exposure – any longer than that, and the treatment simply isn’t effective and therefore isn’t prescribed.
Scientists have been searching for a way to help women prevent contracting HIV during heterosexual sex for some time now. Eighty-four percent of women contract HIV in this way and at present the only preventative options are condoms (both male and female versions). This might seem simple and accessible enough to a number of women living in the United States, but the reality is that for many women around the world guaranteeing that their male partners will use a condom certainly can prove to be difficult, if not impossible. Half of the people in the world living with HIV are women and women are twice as likely as men to contract HIV. This is one of the reasons that scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle are interested in creating a new form of protection in which women can take their sexual health back into their own hands regardless of their situation.
As mentioned before, this idea is nothing new. Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (or PreP) is a prevention method that can be used by people who have a high risk of contracting HIV. This might include people with HIV positive partners, intravenous drug users, or people who regularly have unprotected sex with partners with unknown HIV statuses. The anti-HIV drugs are given in the form of a pill that must be taken every day. Scientists have also been working on topical creams and gels that contain the anti-HIV drugs microbicides for years. While the intention is good with these products, they still lack usability and convenience. They can leak out, be quite messy, and the anti-HIV drugs take about 20 minutes to absorb into a woman’s system, so she would have to know she was going to have sex beforehand and have already applied the gel or cream in order to be properly protected. Microbicides are a promising way to help women prevent HIV, but the engineers at the University of Washington agree that the delivery method of these drugs need serious improvement.
Sex education isn’t just for high school health class anymore. There are a surprising number of adults who know very little about their sexual health. Just because we are old enough to know better, doesn’t always mean that we do. Check out the following tips to keep your sexual life healthy and safe.
1. The Truth about HPV
Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that is getting the most attention these days, probably due to the fact that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that it is the most common STI and almost all sexually active men and women will get it at some point in their lives. Here are some facts to help you learn all you need to know about this STI:
● HPV is spread through skin to skin contact, often during vaginal and anal sex, but it can also be spread during genital to genital contact or oral sex. This means you can be a virgin and still contract HPV.
● There are 40 different types of HPV. Ninety percent (90%) of HPV infections go away on their own within 2 years, but others can go on to cause more serious conditions such as genital warts or cervical cancer.
● There is an HPV screening for women, but unfortunately not for men. Men and women aged 26 and under can get a vaccine that will help to protect against contracting this STI.