via Somatosphere, by Marsha Rosengarten

One of the more controversial interventions proposed for HIV prevention in those who test HIV antibody negative and perceived to be at risk is pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – a daily pill comprising one or two antiretroviral drugs manufactured by Gilead Inc. Besides the mixed results from multi-site randomised controlled trials (RCTs) seeking to establish the efficacy of PrEP (see iPrEX versus Fem-PrEP), concerns have been raised about PrEP’s potential to undermine condom use, its cost implications in locales where treatment provision is still lacking and elsewhere, its potential to cause unwanted drug side-effects as well as possible drug resistance in those it fails to protect.

Nevertheless, continuing new infections and evidence that high adherence produces a strong protective effect are mobilising many public health authorities to devise feasible implementation models.

Most remarkable about the growing interest in PrEP is the exclusion of the social sciences from major forums where this work is taking place. One such example is a two-day forum held in the UK by IAPAC on the dual topics of treatment as prevention (TasP) and PrEP. The only non-biomedical speakers listed on the programme were a psychologist (speaking on adherence), a bioethicist, activists and public health officials linked to various national epidemics.

Indeed it won’t come as a surprise to many to know that despite the millions of dollars to support RCTs for PrEP, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have so far declined to support a substantial programme of social research on PrEP. In fact if we consider the bioethical requirements imposed on the conduct of RCTs for PrEP and other biomedical interventions, there is no ethical requirement for research on the social dimensions of the intervention during or post RCTs. This applies even when RCTs demonstrate candidate efficacy.

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