Can a Pill Prevent HIV?

Two new studies offer hope for prevention

Kevin Fenton (photos courtesy of CDC)

Two new studies have found that taking pills daily may actually help prevent HIV infection.

The first study from the Centers for Disease Control focused on 1,200 men and women in Africa. Half of the people received a daily dose of Truvada, a Gilead Sciences drug used for the treatment of HIV. The other half received a placebo.

The study reveals that only four of the people taking Truvada were infected with HIV compared with 19 who were taking the placebo. Researchers believe that this may suggest the drug actually has the ability to lower the risk of IV infection by roughly 78 percent.

“These are exciting results for global HIV prevention,” says Kevin Fenton, M.D., director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS. “We now have finding from two studies showing that PrEP can work for heterosexuals, the population hardest hit by HIV worldwide. Taken together, these studies provide strong evidence of the power of this prevention strategy.”

Jonathan Mermin

The second study – funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at the University of Washington – offers similar hope. Again, 4,700 heterosexual couples were studied in both Kenya and Uganda. One person from each couple was HIV positive. Those people who were HIV negative were given either daily doses of Truvada or another Gilead drug Viread, also used to treat HIV – or a placebo.

The study found 13 HIV infections among those taking Truvada, 18 on Viread and 47 on the placebo. The medications, says U of Washington, cut the risk of HIV infection up to 73 percent.

Earlier this year, the effects of HIV drugs were studied on gay men in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, South America, Thailand and both San Francisco and Boston. In these trials, Truvada lowered infection risk by 44 percent (and 73 percent among men who took the drug daily).

“This study provides exciting and welcome news,” says Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. “The next important step is to fully review the data and assess when and how PrEP should best be used for HIV prevention.”