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  • The Cost of Pre-exposure Prophylaxis with Truvada

    Posted on August 17th, 2011 admin No comments

    In my last post I wrote about the very small reduction in the absolute risk of HIV infection in the iPrEx trial among those taking Truvada  as pre-exposure prophylaxis.

    The 44% reduction in relative risk conferred by Truvada was the only efficacy measurement explicitly presented by the investigators.  That the absolute risk reduction was only 2.3% was not mentioned in the various presentations.

    I suspect that many reading press reports of this so called breakthrough were unaware that in fact, the actual risk to people taking Truvada was 2.8%.  (36 infections in 1251 participants).  True, this is less than the 5.1% risk to those on placebo, but by very little.  Certainly not enough to justify the bewildering acclaim given to the iPrEx trial results.

    Failing to clearly state the absolute risk reduction of an intervention is something we have come to expect from salesmen to inflate the efficacy of a product, but not from clinical researchers.  Large reductions in relative risk can be associated with minute reductions in absolute risk when the events prevented are low to begin with.

    Another important reason why absolute risk reduction should be stated in a report is that this allows one to calculate the number of people who need to be treated to prevent one event, in this case, one HIV infection.

    Although the iPrEx investigators did not explicitly provide these numbers, they can be worked out from data presented, as I did in my last post and was also done in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine of April 7, 2011 in response to the iPrEx trial report, where the authors report that 44 people need to be treated to prevent one infection (I got 45).

    They then went on to calculate that it would cost $400,000 a year to prevent a single infection.

    This figure does not even include the cost of the necessary monitoring for infection.  In another letter, it was suggested that such monitoring be done monthly to prevent the emergence of resistant virus by detecting infection early.

    From Sean Strub’s calculations (in his comment to my post on the POZ magazine website) which included doctor’s visits and tests, the annual cost would be about $500.000.

    These figures are based on drug costs in the US.

    Truvada PreP not only does not work well enough it will cost a half million dollars a year to prevent a single infection.

    Maybe this is indeed a “game changer” but not in the sense intended by the triumphalist reports coming from the recent Rome AIDS conference.

    There definitely seems to be a perception that PrEP is a viable prevention option for everybody; there even have been calls for its general implementation.  These cost estimates alone would make it unfeasible as a public health measure but there are additional reasons, importantly its relatively low efficacy.

    PrEP is a reasonable option for only a very  small number of individuals at high risk for infection who are able to be regularly checked for infection.  I believe there is no disagreement about this; the controversy is only about its general use.

    Implementation of PrEP on a wide scale will almost certainly result in an increase in new infections.  It’s not only adherence to the drug regimen that will not be maintained by all.  Adherence to a schedule of regular testing for infection cannot be relied on.

    The way PrEP has been promoted has probably already damaged targeted prevention education programs with support for continued condom use, an activity already in great need of support.

    Drugs for prevention are paid for from a different budget than prevention education programs, and health departments already under budgetary constraints may feel that prevention needs can now be paid for by those entities that pay for drugs, private insurers or Medicaid/Medicare.

    The amount of almost uniformly uncritical publicity given to PrEP is completely out of proportion to its utility.  It’s a hugely expensive and very poorly effective prevention intervention, of use to only a very small number of individuals, and its misleading promotion has probably already damaged prevention education programs.

    Considerable resources must have been devoted to publicize and promote PrEP over many years,  in a way that has not taken care to reinforce prevention education with support for continued condom use.    One can only wonder why.

    Drs Dong Heun Lee, M.D.  and Ole Vielemeyer, M.D of Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia are the authors cited.

  • HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP): A misguided guidance issued on its use.

    Posted on February 23rd, 2011 admin No comments

    Full contents of this blog:

    Pre-exposure prophylaxis – called PrEP, is an HIV prevention intervention where antiviral drugs are taken by HIV uninfected individuals in the hope that sexual transmission of HIV will be prevented.   A recent trial of daily Truvada, a combination of two anti-HIV drugs demonstrated only a 44% reduction in the risk of becoming HIV infected by sexual transmission among men who have sex with men (MSM).     I have written about this trial a few months ago.

    Unbelievably, the use of this intervention has in effect been endorsed by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).   True, the CDC call their recommendations on the use of daily Truvada as PrEP an “interim guidance”.    But anything short of “don’t risk your life by taking an intervention that cannot even halve the chance of becoming HIV infected” is in effect an endorsement.    Simon Collery has also written about this calling the CDCs recommendations a “mixed message”.

    The CDC is not alone in regarding an intervention that is only 44% effective in preventing a potentially lethal infection to be good enough to be implemented.  Quite surprisingly some groups claiming to represent the interests of those at risk share this bizarre view.  One implication is that these groups, supposedly representing people at risk for sexually transmitted HIV, as well as the CDC have given up on persuading MSM to use a condom, as described by Michael Weinstein in a recent article .

    In reality groups calling for an implementation of an insufficiently effective intervention to prevent a life threatening infection may be a  small minority whose real influence is probably insignificant in relation to their noisy irrational advocacy.

    People on the ground, dealing with risk are often wiser than those who claim to advocate on their behalf, but do not have the means to influence the way issues are reported in the media.  They know that a 44% efficacy in reducing the chance of acquiring a life threatening infection is just not good enough.  They know that condoms are the most effective way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV.

    But when this insufficiently effective measure was first announced in November of 2010, it was hailed as a triumph.    Time magazine even called this ineffective intervention the most significant medical breakthrough of 2010!     I suspect these accolades may have resulted from the skill of publicists rather than of independent investigative reporting.

    But of course I may be part of a  minority in considering that a trial demonstrating that an intervention that is only 44% effective in preventing a potentially lethal infection is far from a triumph and  rather is an emphatic failure because a much more effective protective measure is readily available that’s cheaper and safer.

    Concerns that condoms may not be used regularly in appropriate situations to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV are better expressed by a support for extended properly targeted prevention education.

    PrEP trials began in the early 2000s and have had a troubled history.  Trials were planned and even several started in African countries and in Thailand and Cambodia.  Some never got off the ground, and several were stopped for a variety of reasons.  There were vigorous activist demonstrations in connection with some.     The varied concerns of activists included provision of care to trial participants who became infected, or the provision of sterile injection equipment to IV drug users in Thailand.

    I posted a blog on the POZ magazine website in August 2009 describing an ethical problem   with  PrEP trials,  essentially that  PrEP would have to be tested with an imperative to provide and encourage the use of effective means already available to prevent HIV transmission, namely condoms and sterile needles.  If these measures are conscientiously provided and their use encouraged it’s unlikely that any effect solely attributable to PrEP could be measured.  iPrEx  told us that self-reported adherence to medication is unreliable, so there is no reason to believe that self-reported frequency of unprotected sexual intercourse is any less so.

    In that post there are links to two significant articles published in 2005.   The first represents the view sympathetic to those who demonstrated against PrEP trials.  It can be seen by following this link:

    The Tenofovir pre-exposure prophylaxis trial in Thailand: Researchers should show more openness in their engagement with the community

    The second is the view of  PrEP researchers.

    The Abandonded Trials of PreExposure Prophylaxis for HIV: What went wrong?

    We Must Not Let Protestors Derail Trials of Pre Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV

    One of the ways suggested to forestall the problems that have beset so many PrEP trials in the past was to solicit a greater degree of community involvement early in the process with a view to obtaining their commitment.

    An effort was made to obtain community support for PrEP  trials  with the help of UNAIDS.      There have been many teleconferences and many publications about PrEP best seen by looking at this website. http://www.avac.org/

    .

    It’s evident that much effort and expense has been placed into engaging communities in the design and conduct of PrEP trials.  Apparently with some success as I believe the earlier upheavals associated with PrEP trials have not been repeated.

    As for as expenditure on PrEP trials and PrEP promotion, the following figure indicate funding amounts and sources.

    Despite this expenditure, it’s most unlikely that PrEP with Truvada will be used by more than a very small minority of individuals.

    Apart from the cost of the medication, it will be necessary to pay for regular tests for HIV infection and for monitoring for drug toxicity.  It’s likely that some of those who choose to use Truvada as PrEP will forgo these regularly needed tests, because of cost and other reasons.   Not only are these individuals risking infection with an insufficiently effective preventative measure, they also risk the development of virus resistant to the antiviral drugs in Truvada because of receiving a suboptimal dose during an unidentified infection.

    With only a 44% reduction in the risk of becoming HIV infected, unidentified infections are a very real possibility among individuals who choose to use daily Truvada as PrEP.  It’s realistic to be concerned that some of these individuals will not be tested regularly to detect infection.  Individuals with an undetected infection could then pose a risk to their uninfected sexual partners.    Who knows how suboptimal treatment will influence the course of initial HIV infection?.   Even the illness of primary infection that could be an alert,  may be less likely to occur.     Failure to be tested regularly would also mean that drug toxicity, specially to the kidneys is less likely to be detected.

    With all these hazards, not only to the individual using PrEP, and with the likelihood that   Truvada, and indeed other antiviral medications can be  obtained without a prescription,  the CDC’s  interim guidance is unwise.   It’s also unfortunate that there may be  some who will see additional significance in that the guidance  is specifically directed at “high risk” MSM.

    Properly targeted prevention education with the promotion of, and support for condom use  needs all the support it can receive.

    Daily Truvada as PrEP is a really bad idea.

  • AZT: The Clinical Trial that led to its approval.

    Posted on January 28th, 2011 admin No comments

    Full contents of this blog

    The clinical trial that led to the approval of AZT for the treatment of AIDS in 1987 is a landmark event, not only in the field of HIV medicine but I believe it had a major impact on the drug regulatory process that has had effects in all fields of clinical medicine.

    The trial reported in the New England Journal of medicine, had produced a dramatic result (1). Before the planned 24 week duration of the study, after a mean period of participation of about 120 days, nineteen participants receiving placebo had died while there was only a single death among those receiving AZT.   This appeared to be a momentous breakthrough and accordingly there was no restraint at all in reporting the result; prominent researchers triumphantly proclaimed the drug to be “a ray of hope” and “a light at the end of the tunnel”.  Because of this dramatic effect, the placebo arm of the study was discontinued and all participants offered 1500mg of AZT daily.

    I was treating many HIV infected individuals in 1987 when the drug was approved for the treatment of advanced AIDS.  I was puzzled by the results of the trial quite simply because those patients of mine who resembled trial participants would not have died in the period before the placebo arm was terminated.   Many patients enrolled in the trial had experienced an episode of pneumocystis pneumonia within four months of participation.  My patients and those of other experienced physicians were unlikely to die within four months of an episode of this type of pneumonia.

    This means that if my patients had enrolled in the trial it’s probable that there would have been no deaths at all by the time the placebo arm was discontinued and thus an apparent dramatic effect of AZT on mortality would not have been seen.

    There had to be an explanation for the discrepancy between the outcome of my patients (and those of other experienced physicians) and individuals participating in the trial; I was confident that an academic clinical researcher would sort this out.

    But no explanation was forthcoming.

    I was then able to obtain a copy of the FDA review of the  application submitted by Burroughs Wellcome, (the NDA) and tried to understand the discrepancy myself.

    I reviewed the report as a primary care provider to people with AIDS, and thus challenged very aggressively, both by my colleagues and by many patient advocates, to prescribe AZT.  I also reviewed the report as a clinical researcher who had designed and implemented clinical trial protocols.

    This is the report I wrote after reading the review of the NDA. (1)

    Essentially it makes the point that patient management strategies were the most significant factor influencing mortality, at least in the short term, and it could not be excluded that differences in the ways patients were managed in the trial, were to a greater or lesser extent, responsible for survival differences.  Patient management in this context refers to all the measures available, before the introduction of specific antiviral therapy, to care for individuals susceptible to infections and malignancies associated with impaired cell mediated immunity.   For example, the speed with which a potentially fatal opportunistic infection is suspected and diagnosed and efficiently treated can make the difference between life and death.   Much experience in the treatment of immunocompromised individuals had been gained before the AIDS epidemic, particularly in the field of renal transplantation, but also in other conditions.

    The AZT trial took place in 12 centers across the country.  There was no uniform approach to patient management during the trial; each of the 12 medical centers approached the most important determinant of life and death in the short term, independently.

    I will return to the implications of this lack of uniformity in patient management strategies.

    It may seem surprising today that so little attention was paid to developing methods for the optimal day to day care of patients with AIDS, but at the time there was a pervasive defeatist attitude concerning treatment.    All too commonly it was felt that nothing could be done to halt the inevitable progression of the disease to its fatal end.

    I’m not sure that it’s even possible to adequately describe the terror and desperation felt in the early 1980s.   At that time doctors on the front lines were trying to do what they could for their patients but had received little help from experts at academic medical centers and virtually none at all from Government scientists, although by 1981 when the first AIDS cases were reported,  diseases of the immunocompromised host had already become a distinct medical subspecialty.

    But by 1986 nothing of any use regarding treatments had come from the Public Health Service.  For example, people with AIDS had to wait until 1989 for the CDC to issue guidelines for the prevention of pneumocystis pneumonia, the most frequent cause of death among them, while this type of pneumonia had often been routinely prevented in many other individuals who were also at risk because they were recipients of kidney transplants, or were children with leukemia.  The means to prevent pneumocystis pneumonia had been published in 1977.

    Some community doctors were not waiting for recommendations from government scientists or from their colleagues in academic medical centers, and were learning how to care for their patients. I and several colleagues were preventing pneumocystis pneumonia among our patients for many years before the Public Health Service got around to making their recommendations.

    Those who had taken on the medical leadership of the epidemic were telling us in their silence that there was nothing much we could do – we just had to wait for a drug.

    Then, after six years of silence regarding treatments Government scientists at last told us that help was on the way.  Dr Samuel Broder who was head of the National Cancer Institute appeared on television shows trumpeting the benefits of a drug he called Compound S.   I well remember a TV show where he appeared with an AIDS patient who enthusiastically attested to the benefit he had received from the drug, presumably from 1.5G of AZT daily.

    A note about patient management strategies:

    There really was a lot that we were able to do for our patients before the advent of specific antiviral therapy.    After all, most deaths were caused by opportunistic infections, and we certainly could do a great deal to prevent and treat many of them.

    Without much guidance some doctors with large practices were able to develop structured programs of patient care.   These included the prevention of opportunistic infections when possible, the determination of susceptibility to some, and their early diagnosis and aggressive treatment.

    All too often symptoms, particularly diarrhea, fever, weight loss, and anemia were simply attributed to AIDS and not investigated. In fact, such symptoms could frequently be ameliorated if their causes were aggressively sought.  More often than not they were caused by treatable conditions.   So, patient management strategies included aggressively trying to establish the causes of such symptoms and treating them.

    It was the experts who in fact were more likely to attribute them to AIDS and therefore consider them to be untreatable

    The provision of general support, including attention to nutrition and mental health issues are parts of patient management.

    All of this is pretty labour intensive doctoring, but these measures were able to prolong the lives of our patients.

    Needless to say, it was community doctors who had to develop such strategies without much help from the experts. I suppose one has to conclude that the government medical leadership of the response to the epidemic, unlike community doctors dealing with it, must have felt that nothing could be done for people with AIDS, that the only hope to be found was in a new drug.

    Returning to the original AZT trial:

    If in the short term patient management strategies can make the difference between life and death is there any reason to consider that such strategies may have differed in those receiving placebo or AZT?

    The reason why randomized placebo controlled clinical trials are blinded, (so that neither investigator nor participant knows who is receiving placebo or active drug) is to minimize bias.  Bias can influence the outcome that might incorrectly be attributed to a drug effect.   But it’s impossible to blind a trial using AZT.  The drug causes changes in routine blood counts that investigators need to see.   Therefore we must conclude that investigators could know who was receiving AZT or placebo.   The FDA reviewer was aware of this.

    If patient management is the most important determinant of mortality in the short term, could bias have influenced the ways patients were managed?

    Unfortunately, because this was essentially an unblinded trial, the answer is yes.

    Patients known to be taking AZT or placebo might have unintentionally been treated differently, with either greater or lesser care, when the investigator was also the treating physician.  AZT may therefore have been even more effective than claimed or may have been worse.

    In some centers were there  instances where the participant also had a personal physician?   There was no analysis of trial outcomes based on this difference.  There was also no analysis of outcomes by study center.   New York City was a study site.  Were patients referred to the study site at St Lukes Roosevelt Hospital Center by personal physicians who continued to care for their patients?

    Information must still be available regarding mortality at different study centers, and in relation to whether the participant was treated by the study doctor or had a personal physician.

    Dr Fischl was the principal investigator of the trial but I don’t know if she and her team at the University of Miami were the treating physicians as well as the trial investigators.

    Incidentally this also brings up the important question of   the propriety of an individual serving as both investigator and treating physician. I believe these two roles are often incompatible; that there can be an insuperable conflict of interest that should preclude an individual from functioning in these two roles concurrently.  I have served in both capacities but in most instances, not simultaneously.

    The survival benefit in the trial attributed to AZT   may therefore, to a greater or lesser extent have been due to differences in how placebo or AZT recipients were managed.  All we can say is that the question remains, not that this was in fact the case.

    The problems resulting from unblinding were clearly acknowledged by the FDA reviewer but not by the study investigators.   Around the time of the trial report I took part in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation telephone interview.  When I tried to bring up the issue of bias I was cut short by a NIH official who said this was too technical a detail for the audience!

    Very unfortunately, the most vocal of the critics of the AZT trial included some individuals who believed that HIV could not cause AIDS.   Their strident criticisms were unhelpful; it was evident that none of these critics had any experience in clinical trial methodology.

    It was immensely disappointing to find that many of the problems in the trial were identified by Ellen Cooper, the FDA reviewer, yet the drug was still approved at a dosage that proved to be so toxic that another trial compared a similar dose with half that dose. This exercise resulted in excess deaths among those taking the higher dose. (A randomized controlled trial of a reduced daily dose of zidovudine in patients with the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Margaret A Fischl et al. NEJM 1990: 323:1009-14).

    Among the many bizarre aspects surrounding the introduction of AZT was the claim that the excess deaths in those receiving the higher dose were due to AIDS – that in the case of AZT, less is better – the explanation given for the superiority of the low dose compared to the high dose was that the lower dose allowed people to remain on the drug for longer – not even a hint that the higher dose contributed to the increased mortality.  Here is the representation of the mortality differences between the two dosages:

    It’s worth reproducing the disingenuous words in which this is stated.

    “The findings in this study indicate that a lower daily dose of zidovudine is at least as effective ………as the initially tested dose of 1500mg per day and is less toxic”  “Moreover low dose therapy was associated with a better survival rate” “The reason for this better interim survival is not certain, but is most likely related to the greater likelihood that continuous antiviral therapy can be maintained with lower doses of zidovudine”

    If ever evidence was needed that AZT – at the initial recommended dose of 1500mg daily probably caused an excess mortality – the figure above provides it, despite the disingenuous claims of the authors that the deaths were due to AIDS.  A rational response would have been to work out the minimum effective dose. Why stop at 600mg a day? 300mg a day is probably just as good.  It is the dose I prescribed with no evidence that 300mg AZT daily was associated with a worse outcome.  As described in another article it is likely that endogenous interferon plays a role in pathogenesis, and AZT promptly removes it from the circulation

    That the possibility that more people on the higher dose died from AZT toxicity  is not even mentioned in the above report is a sad indication of what has become of the discussion of results section in a scientific paper, at least in the field of AIDS. Traditionally all reasonable possibilities are discussed, even to be dismissed, but not in this paper.

    The publicity following the approval of AZT was huge. Doctors received a video where AZT was billed as “A ray of hope”. I recall white coated doctors speaking about the “light at the end of the tunnel”.

    The dosage schedule was absurd.  There was no scientific basis at all for four hourly dosing.  AZT was to be taken even at night, and patients were given beepers to remind them to take their medicine exactly at the appointed time.   AZT is not the compound that blocks HIV replication. It is changed into the active compound within the cell by the addition of phosphate, and so blood levels tell you nothing about the levels of the active form in the cell. It is also a little gruesome – because as it turned out adherence to this difficult ritual was associated with great toxicity, and I can imagine that sometimes the manifestations of this toxicity would be attributed to AIDS and patients encouraged to still keep their beeper going and continue to take AZT.  At first the drug was only available if patients met certain criteria, and I know colleagues, devoted to their patients, who forged the papers to enable their patients to get the huge dose of AZT.   All on the basis of an approval based on a terribly flawed trial.

    Of course the need for some therapy was quite desperate and one must wonder if this desperation lowered the threshold of what was deemed to be acceptable, so that there was perhaps less scrutiny of the trial and the failures of AZT at the dose used – until of course toxicity forced a reconsideration of the dosage.

    The approval of AZT also set an important precedent that seemed to go unnoticed at the time, and indeed has escaped comment subsequently.

    AZT was the first drug of its kind to be approved for lifelong human use.

    The drug  is an analogue of thymidine which is a normal building block of DNA.  It is incorporated, instead of thymidine, into DNA during its synthesis, and then immediately stops further DNA chain elongation because nothing can be added to it.

    The use of such analogues able to disrupt DNA synthesis was considered to be perilous when I first dealt with them in the 1960s.  I had used them in the virology laboratory in experiments conducted in vitro, and they were handled with caution, as potentially hazardous substances.

    In clinical practice, apart from acyclovir which is a similar drug, but in a special category,   such analogues were used systemically in malignancies and some viral infections – such as herpes encephalitis or neonatal herpes, but only for short periods.  Acyclovir is in a different category as it can only be used by the herpes virus enzymes, and has no effect in cells not infected with herpes viruses.    The idea of a possibly lifelong exposure to a DNA chain terminating compound – or even an analogue that is incorporated into DNA that continues to be synthesized, was I believe a novel concept at that time. To emphasize, what was novel was not the use of such compounds, but a life time exposure to them. .    So, I was somewhat concerned at the very idea of this approach, and also found it strange that colleagues were mostly silent on this issue.  These analogues need to undergo changes in the cell, and are added to the growing DNA chain by enzymes, either those that belong to the cell, or enzymes that are specific to the virus, such as the reverse transcriptase of HIV.  It was hoped that AZT, which is turned into its active form by cellular enzymes, would be preferentially used by the viral rather than the cell enzymes that synthesize DNA, and therefore not terminate cellular DNA synthesis; there was some evidence to support this. HIV’s reverse transcriptase adds AZT to the viral DNA chain, while cellular enzymes add it to cellular DNA. Cell DNA is found in two different sites. In the nucleus it is the DNA that constitutes our genome – that is all the information that determines our inherited characteristics. DNA is also found in cellular structures called mitochondria which are the source of the energy needed by the cell. Two different enzymes are needed to make DNA in each situation. While there was comforting evidence that AZT much preferred the viral reverse transcriptase to the enzyme that makes our genomic DNA, this preference was less evident in the case of the enzyme that makes mitochondrial DNA. In fact much of the toxicity of AZT is a result of its effect on mitochondrial DNA synthesis.

    I never prescribed AZT when it was first approved, and when I did it was at a dose of 300mg a day.  Because I was one of the few physicians around 1987 who did not prescribe AZT I attracted patients who were reluctant to take it and whose physicians were nor supportive of this choice.  I also received severe criticism for my position

    This original AZT trial did however clearly demonstrate to me how important patient management strategies were in the treatment of AIDS, particularly in the days before the more potent antiviral drugs became available.

    The New England Journal of medicine, which reported the original trial, rejected my review of the FDA report.    I sent copies to all the clinicians who were prominent in the field – as well as to several patient advocates. There was not a single response – not even to reject the points I made.  Just total silence.  Realizing the difficulty in publishing independent material we – myself and mostly Michael Callen , decided to publish an independent journal.  We called it AIDS Forum. Michael was the editor, and it lasted for three issues.

    One last comment on the baneful effects of this trial:  While it was not responsible for the undue influence industry has on medical practice, this trial probably provided the greatest impetus towards the sad situation we are in today. It is possible that in the field of HIV medicine, industry had its greatest opportunity to establish a firm hold on many different ways to influence practice. These include not only marketing strategies, but influence on guidelines committees, support of continuing medical education, the support of medical conferences and influence on reports of their proceedings, as well as the invention of the Key Opinion leader or KOL, to provide information to physicians.    “Key Opinion Leader” is not the only absurd designation in this field.  We also have “Thought Leader”.  Needless to say these distinctions are not conferred by any academic institution; I would assume that the marketing departments of pharmaceutical companies are responsible for choosing who deserve these titles.

    (1)

    N Engl J Med 1987; 317:185-191July 23, 1987

  • iPrEx trial results of preexposure prophylaxis – PrEP

    Posted on December 12th, 2010 admin No comments

    Full Contents of this blog

    Pre-Exposure prophylaxis –  PrEP –  iPrEx  trial results.

    Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is an HIV prevention intervention in which anti-HIV drugs are taken to prevent infection.    A safe, effective and affordable drug that could achieve this would be a powerful prevention intervention even possibly capable of halting the spread of the epidemic.

    Last week we were told the results of the iPrEx trial that tested the efficacy of PrEP with Truvada, a combination of two anti-HIV drugs, in reducing new HIV infections among a group of men who have sex with men considered to be at high risk for HIV infection.

    The announcement of the results was greeted with almost universal jubilation.

    “That’s huge,”  said a prominent AIDS researcher,  “That says it all for me.”

    “Today marks a major step forward in our quest to combat HIV among MSM

    “This discovery alters the HIV prevention landscape forever,”

    “….. the new data “represents the most promising development in HIV/AIDS since the introduction of triple combination drug therapy in 1996.”

    “This is a game-changing trial result,”

    Science magazine reported that..

    “The researchers applauded and some even cried when they heard the bottom line”; “I have not cried this hard in years” – said one researcher.

    These exultant cheers are usually reserved for the most momentous of breakthroughs.

    Demonstrating that a drug could be safe and effective in preventing infection would indeed be a momentous breakthrough as already noted.

    But the iPrEx results, far from representing such a breakthrough, indicated that PrEP,  at least with Truvada, together with counselling and provision of condoms, reduced new HIV infections among men who have sex with men only modestly.   It’s unlikely that the 44% reduction in new infections that was seen is of sufficient magnitude to make PrEP with Truvada viable as a public health prevention intervention. Moreover, as will be described there are significant safety concerns, a demonstrated danger of the emergence of drug resistant HIV, and the drug is far from affordable.

    A 44% reduction in new infections is not huge; even those extolling the trial results would agree (at least I think they would, but who knows considering the over-the-top responses).

    But what is most troubling is that the researchers have squeezed an efficacy of Truvada  of over 90%  by a questionable statistical sleight of hand,  an improper use of sub-group analysis, a technique of data dredging has been soundly discredited.  I’ll return to this.

    This has resulted in  headlines such as “PrEP works – if you take your pills”, I don’t know if this will persuade some people to abandon condoms and religiously take their pills.  Unfortunately the type of analysis that provides confidence to do so is not reliable.  Maybe consistent use of Truvada will reduce new infections by over 90%. Maybe not.

    For the moment staying with the ability to reduce new infections by 44%, as a public health intervention to be used on a wide scale, this degree of efficacy is just not good enough to justify using Truvada to prevent a life threatening infection.   Even if the risk of infection is low this must be balanced against the gravity of the infection. About 3% of participants in the Truvada arm of the trial became infected as opposed to about 5% among those receiving placebo.

    Perhaps it’s on this issue that I’m at odds with the huge acclaim given to the trial results.  Maybe the prevailing view is that a 44% reduction in new infections is indeed good enough; some commentators are even discussing implementation.

    PreP proponents like to compare it to malaria prophylaxis.  If the efficacy of malaria prophylaxis were of the same order as that of Truvada in relation to HIV, I suspect many people might think twice before visiting an area where there was a risk of malaria.

    Let’s take a closer look at the trial results, particularly the claimed greater degree of efficacy in compliant participants   reported in the New England Journal of medicine.

    I have commented briefly on this in my blog on the POZ magazine website.

    The medication used in the trial,   Truvada,  is a combination of two HIV anti-HIV drugs, FTC and tenofovir.  It was compared with placebo in over 2000 men who have sex with men, considered to be at high risk for HIV infection.

    The 44% reduction in new infections was achieved in conjunction with counselling, provision of condoms and monthly tests to monitor for infection.

    This is not a good enough performance to justify widespread use of Truvada to protect against infection.  The investigators then looked at blood and tissue levels of the drugs in people who became infected and those who did not.  They found that those who remained uninfected had detectable drug levels while those who became infected did not.

    They incautiously trumpeted this result as proving that Truvada works well if the pills are taken consistently – stating that in those who took their pills more consistently the relative risk reduction was well over 90%.

    On the surface this sounds good. Almost all the commentators thought so.

    However looking at the results in a sub-group of participants can be misleading.  Most particularly in a sub-group that is defined after randomization; who would or would  not comply with treatment could not have been known.    The problems with subgroup analyses will be clearer after a short account of intention to treat analysis.

    Intention to treat analysis is the most reliable way to analyse clinical trial data.   In such an analysis participants are analysed in the group to which they were randomized, irrespective of whether they dropped out, or didn’t adhere to the treatment or strayed from the protocol in other ways. This seems counter-intuitive, but there are sound reasons why intention to treat is regarded as the best way to analyse trial data, among them  that it more reliably reflects what happens in real life, rather than in a clinical trial.  For example, one reason why pills may not work is because they are not taken. If they are not taken in a trial we have to be concerned that they may not be taken in real life.  Take a look at this excellent explanation of intention to treat:  Making sense of intention to treat.

    As noted, the trial investigators made a lot of the sub-group analysis showing greater efficacy in those who took  Truvada pills as measured by finding the drugs in blood and tissue samples.

    This is surprising  as the pitfalls inherent in such post-hoc sub-group analyses have been recognized for years.  Commentators, some of whom are clinical researchers, in their over-the-top exultation at the results of the analysis in those compliant with Truvada  may have forgotten about the treachery inherent in sub group analysis.  A few commentators give the problem only passing acknowledgement.

    This is a classic paper on sub group analysis:

    Yusuf S, Wittes J, Probstfield J, Tyroler HA: Analysis and interpretation of treatment effects in subgroups of patients in randomized clinical trials.

    Journal of the American Medical Association 1991 , 266:93-98

    This is from that paper:

    “Analysis of improper subgroups, though seductive, can be extremely misleading, because a particular treatment effect may influence classification to the subgroup. Thus, an apparent subgroup effect may not be a true effect of treatment but rather the result of inherent characteristics of patients that led to a particular response or to the development of side effects”.

    In iPrEx  the subgroups were categorized by events that happened after randomization, so the adherent group is an “improper” subgroup.  “Subgroups of clinical trial subjects identified by baseline characteristics … is a proper subgroup while a subgroup determined by post randomization events or measures is an improper subgroup”.

    In actuality the attention given to the subgroup that had blood and tissue drug levels is an example of the treachery of such sub-group analyses.

    As an illustration, the reduction in new infections seen in this group may well have resulted from the following possibility.

    People who take their pills consistently are more likely to use condoms consistently and in general are more attentive to risk.   So if it were possible to do a subgroup analysis of people who adhered to placebo we might conclude that the placebo also works – (and it’s cheaper).

    This is not so fanciful.

    “In one study [3], those who adhered to the trial drug (clofibrate) had reduced

    mortality; but those who adhered to the placebo pill had the same reduction in mortality”.

    This is from:

    Coronary Drug Project Research Group. Influence of adherence to treatment

    and response of cholesterol on mortality in the coronary drug

    project. Engl J Med 1980;303:1038-1041

    A classic example of the pitfalls of subgroup analysis is  what it demonstrated in the ISIS-2, a trial examining the effects of aspirin after myocardial infarction.  A subgroup analysis showed it was of benefit to all except in people who were either Libras or Geminis.

    Maybe Truvada taken consistently can reduce new infections by over 90%; maybe not.  There was no basis for the investigators and commentators to present the first possibility with such overwhelming confidence.

    We must accept that a 44% reduction in new infections is at this time the most reliable estimate of Truvada’s efficacy as PrEP.   Although, the confidence interval , a measure of reliability, was wide.

    We have an intervention that can reduce new infections by 44%, if taken in conjunction with a program of counselling, condom use, and monthly tests for HIV infection.  That is the benefit.   What about the down side?

    The two most important are the development of resistance of HIV to the component drugs of Truvada and the toxicity of the drugs.

    The utility in treating HIV infection of FTC and tenofovir – Truvada’s component drugs is lost if the virus becomes resistant to the drugs.  Moreover, some mutations conferring resistance to these drugs can also affect sensitivity to some other drugs.  The danger of resistance, and even cross resistance to other drugs developing when Truvada is used as PrEP is not a trivial concern.    Truvada used as PrEP provides a suboptimal dose in treating established HIV infections.  This is precisely the situation in which resistance is likely to develop.   There were in fact two instances of developed resistance in the iPrEx trial in individuals who became infected, but undetected before the trial began.

    Resistant viruses in the community are a danger to all, so the risk of generating resistance is not confined to the individual taking Truvada as PrEP.

    What about safety?

    The claim in many reports that Truvada is without significant toxicity is also misleading.

    Maybe poor adherence has some bearing on the lack of significant toxicity.

    A median of 1.2 years exposure to Truvada can tell us little about cumulative and long term effects. Experience with long term use of Truvada in HIV infected people makes concern about toxicity realistic. Renal toxicity, sometimes severe occurs not uncommonly. It’s mostly but not always reversible on stopping the drug.   Thinning of bones, osteopenia and osteoporosis is also seen. There are additional adverse effects associated with the drugs.

    There were small abnormalities in some paramaters measuring kidney function among those treated with Truvada.  Although these changes were reversible on stopping the drug, the fact that they were seen at all is a reason for great concern about the effects of longer term treatment.

    With the experience we have gained from longer term treatment with Truvada, it is disingenuous to stress its overall safety from just 1.2 years of very inconsistent use.

    It’s important to point out that for HIV infected individuals, the benefits of treatment with Truvada far outweigh the risks.  For uninfected individuals, an entirely different risk benefit analysis must be made.

    Despite the disappointing results of iPrEx, PrEP is important.

    Why is PrEP important?

    There are at least two important reasons.
    1:

    PrEP could protect receptive partners in sexual intercourse, both men and women, who are unable to ensure that a condom is used by their partner and for a variety of reasons are unable to refuse sex .   The best and most respectful way of addressing this would be to find ways to empower these individuals; in some way providing them with the means to protect themselves could be seen to also have the effect of perpetuating their subjugation and abuse.

    But there are women and men who need protection now and providing them with a means to prevent infection that they can control is vital.  This can go hand in hand with working to empower them and helping them to try to ameliorate or leave abusive relationships.

    2:

    Sex is one of life’s joys.  It is vitally important to the human experience.

    Condoms can be a barrier to intimacy which for many is the most essential aspect of sexual intercourse, for both receptive and insertive partners.  So recommending the use of condoms without acknowledging the significant obstacle they may present to a fulfilling sexual experience is a real problem.   Pleasure is part of that fulfilment and for some insertive partners condoms are a significant impediment to experiencing it.

    A fully effective  and safe means of pre-exposure prophylaxis may also allow the removal of a barrier to conception.

    But people are different; for example some individuals have found that condoms can increase intimacy in the reassurance they provide concerning their and their partners safety.

    We should never minimize or trivialize the difficulties condoms can present.  We should also keep in mind that their use is the most effective means of preventing sexual transmission of HIV.

    Their use will remain necessary in order to remain uninfected until we are free from HIV or a safe an effective PrEP method can be found.

    These  considerations, a prevention method that the receptive partner can control,allow conception  and  remove an impediment to full sexual expression are reasons to work towards finding a safe and effective form of PrEP.   If this can be achieved safely and affordably it could even help to bring the epidemic to an end.

    Truvada unfortunately has not proved to be sufficiently effective or safe to be of utility as a general recommendation.  The use of condoms still  remains the most efficient way to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV.

    .

    A few words about prevention education and condoms:

    The  consistent use of condoms is the most effective means to  prevent sexual transmission of HIV.

    PrEP proponents agree but many go on to say that people just don’t use condoms consistently.  This is an attitude that has apparently concluded that prevention education does not and  cannot work.

    But how can one conclude that it does not work when there has been so little of it?   This has some analogy with the claims made for the efficacy of Truvada.   It works, if you take the pills

    .

    If prevention education has been a failure, it’s not because it doesn’t work, but because we have not provided it well enough.  There has been too little and most has not been properly targeted.

    Proper targeting to those most at risk is critical. I have written about this.  We need more and better prevention education.

    The CDC now tells us that the group at greatest risk by far in the US is men who have sex with men.  Nothing has changed except the ethnic distribution, so why are they only telling this to us now?     For over twenty years we were told that AIDS was an equal opportunity infection making prevention education targeted to those at greatest risk even more difficult.

    It’s only now, 25 years too late, that the CDC appears to recognize the urgency of providing prevention education to gay men.

    Neglect of properly targeted prevention education, with encouragement for condom use and continuing support to sustain their use helped to allow the spread of HIV into African American communities in plain view while millions were spent on “America Responds to AIDS” a vacuous prevention message.

    Similarly we have known for years that in the US younger men who have sex with men are at particular risk.  We know where to target prevention messages, but we don’t do it well enough.

    We know that highly targeted prevention education, when crafted by the communities at greatest risk can work.  This was demonstrated in the earliest years of the epidemic in San Francisco and New York City.

    In  1982 when Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz and I first recommended condom use to gay men in New York City, we stressed that in doing so it was important to celebrate sex, recognizing that  for some individuals condom use, or perhaps more precisely, HIV,  could present a barrier to its full expression.      We have come far in freeing ourselves from long standing societal constraints that for too many have stood in the way of a fulfilling sexual experience burdening it instead with guilt.   It’s important to take care in providing continuing support for condom use and recognize that for many they do get in the way. But it’s really HIV that’s getting in the way, and consistent condom use can help to bring it to an end.

    Finding conditions where sex without condoms is safe is important.   On the showing of iPrEx – despite its ecstatic reception, PrEP unfortunately is not yet ready.

    At the moment consistent condom use is the best protection there is.

    The often uncritical response to iPrEx should not persuade anyone that Truvada  is a safe and effective alternative.

    iPrEx is a large and complicated study.  The investigators deserve the highest praise for completing this difficult phase and for havine provided a result.  It may not be the result that many had hoped for.  But providing clear information is a great achievement and a major advance . iPrEx results clearly show that continued condom use is still necessary to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV.

  • HIV Prevention Education and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis Against HIV. August 2009

    Posted on August 30th, 2009 admin No comments

    Since my last post on this subject I have heard a variety of different views as well as discussed the issue with several  interested individuals.

    As a result I have come to see the issue somewhat differently; I suppose I could just amend my last post, but it’s better to leave it as it is and  describe the differences in how I now view PrEP efficacy trials after having heard several different descriptions of  ways in which these are seen.

    I listened to presentations at two conferences during the  last few weeks.  A teleconference organized by CHAMP, a community group, and one organized by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  These conferences attempted to engage and inform individuals about PrEP.       As a consequence I realize that I was mistaken in stating so categorically that efficacy trials of PrEP,  unlike safety trials, could not be undertaken in human research subjects.   However I do not think that if all the ethical requirements are met, that is to provide condoms, consistent counseling and sterile injecting equipment, a generalizable result will be obtained indicating that it is an effective prevention strategy.  Of course I don’t know this, and was wrong in my view that trials of PrEP efficacy should not proceed.

    The most important concern with the way the promotion of PrEP, at least as a concept, is being pursued is the neglect of encouraging  prevention education.

    Prevention education remains the most important tool we actually have, as opposed to theoretical and unproven approaches.  The latter include PrEP, and the test and treat every infected person proposal.   We absolutely know that in principle prevention education, including the use of condoms can work.   It worked in curbing the increase in the epidemic among gay men in the late 1980s .

    The principle is thus established, admittedly without application to those who have no control over the use of condoms by the male partner.  This group is therefore in need of prevention strategies they can control themselves, and PrEP may be the only realistic possibility.

    For everyone else, the sexual transmission of HIV can be controlled by the use of condoms, even if not with 100% efficacy.  We have a powerful tool in our hands, and if there are new infections, this is certainly not an indication that it does not work well enough.   It indicates that it is an activity that receives insufficient support, or  it may well be that some of those doing it are just not very good at it.  Maybe there is little societal support for HIV prevention education, even little support from individuals at risk who could use condoms but would like not to.

    Unfortunately, from what I have experienced, the several groups supporting and promoting PrEP seemed to have given little thought to prevention education in presenting this intervention to stakeholders. .  They may be diligent in the context of efficacy trials, in ensuring the availability of condoms and counselling to participants.

    But what seems to be missed is this:  Unless the promotion of PrEP is accompanied by very clear advocacy of prevention education with condom use,  PrEP can be seen as an alternative to safer sex practices as now recommended.

    This cannot be the intention, but from comments I have heard after the CHAMP and CDC conferences this seems to be a dangerous conclusion that some have drawn.

    The explanation of the utility of PrEP must be accompanied by a strengthening of prevention education to avoid this unfortunate misinterpretation. The very promotion of the concept of PrEP in the way it has so far been done can actually be seen as an undermining of condom use.  A possible alternative to condoms is presented. One can only hope that in the absence of accompanying prevention education there will not be instances sex with available antiretroviral drugs rather than with condoms.

    Prevention education is in a dismal state as it is, and we should be aware of any activity that can undermine it further, unless care is taken in how it is presented.

    I have commented in other posts that in HIV medicine a one-size-fits-all approach seems to be the norm.  Admittedly it’s cheaper to deal with populations rather than individuals. A single size that fits everybody is even cheaper  than providing  small, medium or large varieties, let alone customizing the size to fit individual needs.

    So in HIV medicine, treatment recommendations have been made for all infected individuals, without considering the rate of disease progression, and many other characteristics applicable to any given person.

    So it is with PrEP.  Its relevance is different to different constituencies.

    At one extreme, for those who have no power to control the use of a condom by their male partner, PrEP may be the only realistic possibility of avoiding infection with HIV.  PrEP to these individuals is obviously of vital importance.

    In fact it is so important that it would be useful even if its efficacy, if this can be demonstrated, proves to be inferior to the consistent use of condoms.   Such individuals have no alternative.

    The situation of people who are perfectly capable of consistent condom use is different.

    The power of the receptive partner in this case is the power to say no. No condom, no sex.   Both partners have an effective means of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV.  There is no need for PrEP to prevent infection, except that some may welcome an additional layer of protection.

    There are others whose hopes for PrEP are different.  The desire to conceive is one.

    Yet others hope that PrEP will make sex without condoms safe with respect to HIV transmission.   In this case the efficacy of PrEP would have to be known to be at least equal to the consistent use of condoms (and free from toxicity and affordable).   Of course  individuals decide to take risks that involve danger to  themselves only, but full information should be available, and certainly we should take care not to disseminate material that can  mislead, even if only by implication.   We do not have full information on the efficacy of PrEP, and I can see no way of testing its efficacy without the use of condoms.   But it is here that we need to take great care not to mislead, even by implication, that PrEP is as safe as using condoms unless in the unlikely event, it is actually  proven to be so.

    Even a modest degree of efficacy is better than nothing for those who are unable to avoid sex with a partner who cannot be relied on to use a condom. There actually is nothing else to protect them.

    A modest degree of efficacy is insufficient for those who are well able to refuse to have sex if a condom is not used.   That’s my opinion, and I would believe that of many others, but as  always risking  harm to oneself only,  is an individual choice;  our obligation is not to mislead, and ensure  that full and accurate information is available.

    So, PrEP is of undoubted importance to individuals who have no control over the use of a condom by their male partner.  Apart from the female condom, it is the insertive partner who has to use a condom.  All the receptive partner has as protection now,  is the ability to just say no.  We recognize that there are situations when this is not possible, and no practical remedy is available to change this.

    Of course there are other situations when it is possible to attempt a change.  If an individual just cannot say no to a partner who cannot be relied on to use a condom because he or she is ignorant of safer sex practices this is something we must try to remedy with intensive prevention education.  This will include imparting the knowledge of the lapses in judgement that can accompany the use of drugs or alcohol.

    Getting away from the one-size-fits-all approach, there probably will be some individual situations in which PrEP, even if less effective than consistent condom use may be considered.  An example noted by one commentator is when condom use may be associated with sexual dysfunction.

    Prevention education with consistent condom use is the best available means we have to prevent the transmission of HIV.   Prevention education should be strengthened and care taken not to undermine it.

    Where individuals have no control over the use of a condom by their male partners  we should do what we can to provide them with the means to protect themselves, and PrEP may be all we have to work on at present.

    Others may look to PrEP as a means to avoid the use of condoms.  The price of failure seems to be an extraordinary high one, considering that condom use is known to be highly effective in preventing HIV transmission.

    There are people who need PrEP. There are also people perfectly able to use condoms but who want PrEP.

    In promoting PrEP studies we must take great care not to undermine efforts at prevention education, even by implication.  Promotion of PrEP must go hand in hand with promotion of HIV prevention education.

  • PrEP: Pre exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV infection. August 2009

    Posted on August 11th, 2009 admin No comments

    Pre exposure prophylaxis in relation to HIV infection refers to the administration of anti HIV medications to uninfected people as a means of protecting them from becoming infected with HIV.     It is not known if this intervention will succeed in achieving its goal.   Several trials have been underway to test it for safety and efficacy, and many more are planned worldwide.

    I have paid little attention to these initiatives but was prompted to do so by notices of a meeting to discuss pre exposure prophylaxis – now known as PrEP – in the coming weeks.   The wording of this notice is quite vague, but the notice suggests that it is urgent to start planning for the implementation of PrEP as the analysis of initial safety and efficacy trials are expected within the next year.

    This is quite startling in its implication that PrEP actually works and presumably is safe.  The actual words of the notice are:

    “Results and analyses of initial safety and efficacy trials are expected within the next year, which highlights the urgency to beginning to plan now for how PrEP might be used to maximize its public health impact”.

    This is a convoluted statement, to the point of being quite unintelligible. It can be misleading in the implication that can easily be drawn from it that PrEP works. Why else begin to plan for how to use it?

    I had not been aware of just how extensive the PrEP initiative has been.   To get some idea of the many trials that are underway or planned, take a look at this website:

    http://www.prepwatch.org/

    Trials are sponsored by several organizations, mainly it seems, Family Health International (FHI).

    http://www.fhi.org/en/Topics/preexposure_prophylaxis.htm

    FHI has produced a set of slides listing PrEP trials.

    http://www.prepwatch.org/pdf/Meetings/Cates_TDF_slides_May.2006.pdf

    Among the “research consortia” listed as involved in PrEP research are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gilead Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), The National Institutes of Health (NIH),  and UCSF. These trials are conducted  in many countries, including Peru, Botswana, Thailand, the US and Malawi.

    Organizations listed under “community consortia” are GMHC,  AVAC, Global Campaign for Microbicides, CHAMP, and the IAS.

    The websites of these organizations contain information about PrEP.

    AVAC :   http://www.avac.org/

    Global Campaign for Microbicides:  http://www.global-campaign.org/

    CHAMP:  http://www.champnetwork.org/about

    The International AIDS Society:  www.iasociety.org

    All the trials use a once daily drug, tenofovir, with or without emtricitabine (FTC). Tenofovir is manufactured by Gilead in the US although I believe a generic version is produced in India.

    The trials vary in design.   Some require daily tenofovir, some are used intermittently or specifically before sexual intercourse. Some use a gel formulation.

    Previous trials had run into difficulties; several were stopped for different reasons.  For example a trial in Cameroon was stopped amid allegations that those who seroconverted did not receive adequate treatment.  A trial in Nigeria was stopped because of inadequate standards in laboratory testing.

    A trial of PrEP among Cambodian sex workers was stopped in 2004 by the Cambodian government.  This was perhaps the most publicized of the several PrEP trials that were stopped, because several activist groups brought attention to it at the XV International AIDS Conference in Bakgkok.   Among the many reasons stated for pressure by activist groups to stop the trial were poor HIV prevention counselling, and a lack of medical services to those who seroconverted.    Act Up-Paris was active in stopping PrEP trials both in Cambodia and Cameroon, although it is reported that this organization is supportive of tenofovir trials in general.

    These events are described in an article entitled “The Abandoned Trials of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV: What Went Wrong?”  The authors are Jerome Singh and Edward Mills.  It can be seen here.

    http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020234

    For reasons I will describe I do believe that there is no way to design a trial of the efficacy of PrEP that can meet acceptable ethical standards.   On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to conduct trials to determine the safety of tenofovir for pre exposure prophylaxis.

    So maybe an answer to Drs Singh and Mills as to what went wrong with the abandoned trials of pre exposure prophylaxis is that the question of efficacy, unlike that of safety, cannot and should not be tested on human research subjects.

    Here are the reasons why this cannot be done, at least regarding the use of tenofovir to prevent sexual transmission of HIV.

    No ethically designed and conducted trial can definitely prove that PrEP works.  Definite proof of course may be an unattainable goal, but even credible evidence regarding efficacy  would not be found if the trial were to be conducted in an ethical manner, simply because with the availability of condoms, and the imperative to provide counselling  that they be consistently  used,  such  a trial could not answer the question asked of it. This is essentially because the consistent use of condoms will ensure that insufficient seroconversions occur in participants receiving  placebo.

    In any trial that studies the ability of a new intervention to prevent sexual  transmission of HIV, participants must receive persistent counselling about the need to use condoms.  These must be provided, with ongoing support for their continued use.  This is the ethical requirement.

    Quite clearly if great care is taken to meet this requirement there will be few infections in people receiving placebo.  The investigators are presented with a conflict of interest that no amount of verbal assurance can resolve.  The conflict is that on the one hand the investigator must always be cognisant of the importance of doing all that’s possible to encourage condom use to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV infection, and on the other hand the investigator has an interest in demonstrating an effect of PrEP in preventing it.

    It is only when condom use falls below a certain level that the effect of another preventative measure can be assessed.  We are obliged to do all we can to ensure that this does not happen.

    The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are sponsoring several trials of PrEP[i].  They are very sensitive to the need to provide risk reduction counselling to participants.

    Here is an excerpt from material published by CDC:

    “One of the greatest risks, as efforts progress to identify new biomedical prevention approaches, is that individuals at risk will reduce their use of existing HIV prevention strategies. It will therefore be crucial to reinforce proven behavioral prevention strategies, both within and beyond these trials. All three trials are taking multiple steps to address this issue during the education and enrolment of trial participants and through ongoing participant counselling.

    First, it is critical to ensure that participants understand that trial participation may not protect them from HIV infection—either because they may receive a placebo or because they may receive a study drug, the efficacy of which remains unproven. This and other key aspects of the trial, including the potential risks and benefits of participation, are explained to potential volunteers in the language of their choice, prior to their enrolment. To ensure participants fully understand all aspects of their participation, all volunteers are required to pass a comprehension test prior to providing written informed consent. Study participants are also free to withdraw from the trial at any time and for any reason”.

    So there is clear recognition that there may be a falling off in the use of proven prevention approaches, importantly, the use of condoms.

    Here is another excerpt:

    “To assist participants in eliminating or reducing HIV risk behaviours, extensive counselling is provided at each study visit, and more often if needed. This interactive counselling has proven effective in reducing the risk of HIV and other STDs in multiple populations, including past participants of similar HIV prevention trials. Participants are also offered free condoms and STD testing and treatment to reduce their risk for HIV infection”.

    If such counselling is effective, the prevention of sexual transmission of HIV particularly through the consistent use of condoms will make it impossible to detect an effect of PrEP.   As mentioned the investigators are presented with a conflict that it is not possible to resolve.

    PrEP is an experimental approach to prevention, while consistent condom use is an established method to substantially reduce the sexual transmission of HIV.

    The argument that may be presented by those who are proponents of PrEP is that condom use is not consistent, and that we need an alternative

    The implication of such an argument supporting PrEP is that prevention education, essentially the use of condoms, has not been sufficiently effective.  This cannot be known to be true of prevention education in principle.

    What is definitely true is that those responsible for prevention education have not been sufficiently effective.

    Our efforts  should be focussed on improving prevention education and support for the consistent use of condoms,

    There is so much more that can be done with persistent, culturally sensitive, highly targeted prevention education.  In order to improve our efforts at prevention education we have to first confront the fact that we may have not been too successful in this endeavour, understand why,  and absolutely not take the position that the undertaking is an impossible one.

    Every new infection today represents a failure, not of prevention education as an undertaking, but a failure to provide it effectively.  The introduction of condom use among gay men in the US in the 1980s originated in this community, it was promoted and effectively advocated for by this community and proved to be effective..   In those early years there was certainly no help from the Government which was to spend enormous sums on a vacuous and ineffective untargeted campaign “ America responds to AIDS” which did absolutely  nothing to stop the advance of this disease into African American communities , although this was happening in plain sight.

    What we can learn from this is that different affected communities are best able to understand the  issues specific to their communities that must be emphasized  and  promote prevention education that is most effective for each of them. Their input is therefore  absolutely vital.

    The design and implementation of well funded and highly targeted prevention education has been neglected.   These initiatives need to be specifically targeted to different groups, the needs of which must be assessed,  barriers identified, continuing support provided, as well as some instrument developed to evaluate the success of the programs. .   It is an enormous challenge.

    We know that gay men were able to make it work for them before the concept of risk reduction had even been articulated. It can work and this is where our efforts must be concentrated.  Not on trials of the efficacy of PrEP that are impossible to conduct in an ethical fashion.

    However It is entirely possible  that PrEP may add an additional layer of safety to condom use during sexual intercourse.  This may be of  particular importance in certain circumstances such as among sex workers.  This is also the case among some women who are unable to rely on the use of a condom by their male partners.   Trials of the safety of once daily tenofovir are absolutely possible and even desirable.  Such trials would be unburdened with the ethical problems that make efficacy trials impossible to conduct.  It will be clear that the trials are to determine the safety of tenofovir when used with condoms to provide an additional level of safety.   It is true that we may never be able to firmly establish its efficacy, but if it proves to be safe, there is sufficient – if far from conclusive evidence to justify its use.

    It is clear that all that has been written about concerns the sexual transmission of HIV.    For those in whom the risk of infection  is through intravenous drug use there is an entirely different set of considerations.  The only known prophylactic measure, the reliable provision of sterile injecting equipment is probably just unavailable for most, and efficacy trials are therefore not burdened with the same ethical constraints.

    One cannot help but note that at least  in two initiatives, pharmacological rather than behavioural approaches to prevention are now being emphasized.  Of course PrEP to prevent  transmission of HIV is one. The other is the attempt to end the HIV epidemic by testing and treating all HIV infected people, whether or not a particular infected individual needs treatment for his or her benefit.  Both are beset with ethical problems.

    The use of condoms can significantly reduce the sexual transmission of HIV.  We know this.   Therefore  our greatest efforts should be placed in improving prevention education.  It is a tremendous challenge given the cultural diversity of the populations involved, and the special difficulties experienced by some. This is particularly true where women are disempowered.

    We know that untargeted efforts such as “America Responds to AIDS” do not work.  We need to understand the barriers to effective prevention education.

    A denial of  the importance of sexual expression to the human experience, stigmatization of those infected, homophobia, racism, bigotry in general and the fact that unlike the use of drugs, prevention education provides no financial return,  are surely amongst them.


    [i] [i]    http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/prep/resources/factsheets/index.htm