PEP and HIV
While most people have heard of the Morning-After Pill, too few have been given information on a HIV exposure treatment that’s just as important – PEP.
PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a short-term treatment used to reduce the risk of contracting HIV after accidental exposure. This treatment involves taking 3-4 antiretroviral medications, several times a day, over a 28-day period.
PEP treatment should begin no more than 72 hours after exposure (ideally, treatment should begin within 1 hour of being exposed). When taken correctly, PEP treatment is proven to be up to 80% effective* in preventing the contraction of HIV. But, there are three factors that determine how effective treatment will be for each individual:
As stated above, treatment is most effective when started within an hour of being exposed. It is recommended that treatment begin no more than 72 hours after exposure, as it becomes drastically less effective after this time. Simply put, when starting treatment, the sooner the better (and more effective).
Adhering to the Treatment
For the PEP treatment to be effective, it must be completed and taken exactly as prescribed (paying close attention to when you take the medication and your dosages). Any variance can cause the effectiveness of the medication to plummet. Because the side-effects of treatment can be unpleasant (nausea, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea) and quite severe in some cases, people may find it difficult to fully commit and complete treatment.** But it is crucial that you do.
Another factor that may greatly influence the effectiveness of treatment is, unfortunately, one you cannot control. There are many different strains of the HIV virus. Some of those strains are resistant to certain drugs and treatments. If the person who may have transmitted HIV to you has a drug-resistant virus, it may render PEP ineffective. Because this cannot be determined prior to starting treatment, you should start PEP treatment regardless of whether or not you’re sure it will work.
PEP was initially used to help protect healthcare workers accidentally exposed to HIV (and other diseases/viruses), but its use has also extended to accidental non-occupational exposure (sexual activity). It is important to remember that, like the Morning-After Pill, PEP is an emergency treatment and should NOT be used to replace other forms of protection (condoms). It is only 80% effective* – under the best of conditions – and treatment is often arduous and time consuming.
PEP treatments can be found through your regular doctor, emergency rooms, urgent care clinics, HIV clinics, and other sexual health clinics. But remember that time is factor and it’s always best to get treatment as soon as humanly possible.
* Studies completed on the effectiveness of PEP treatment solely include healthcare workers exposed during work. This number does not reflect PEP’s effectiveness in people accidentally exposed during sexual activity – further study is needed.
** Estimates varying from 1 in 5 to nearly 40% of people quit treatment before completion due to side-effects.
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