Experts are both optimistic and troubled following Kaiser Permanente’s recent successful study surrounding the HIV prevention drug Truvada.
During the 32-month study, Truvada was found to be 100 percent effective in preventing diagnoses of HIV among 657 people, all but four of whom were men who had sex with men.
Cases of other sexually transmitted infections, however, were a different story: 187 of the participants were diagnosed with 344 cases of other sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia.
“Without a control group, we don’t know whether the high rates of STIs in our study were higher than what we would have seen without (Truvada),” said Julia L. Marcus, PhD, MPH, a co-author of the study and principal investigator of the grant that funded the work. “Some patients reported decreased condom use, but there were reported decreases in condom use in the community prior to the introduction of (Truvada).”
A combination of two antiretroviral drugs, Truvada has been used in HIV treatment for more than a decade. The Food and Drug Administration approved its use as a preventive measure, or PrEP (for pre-exposure prophylaxis), in 2012. Truvada is the only drug FDA-approved to prevent HIV, but other HIV medications are being studied for pre-exposure uses.
While the Truvada study is encouraging about a future free of HIV, it highlights the need for more safe sex education regarding other STIs. Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology, said he becomes concerned when people seem nonchalant about sexually transmitted diseases other than HIV.
“We’re in an era when infections are becoming more resistant to antibiotics and other treatments,” he said. “For example, gonorrhea. It won’t be long before we don’t have any defenses left for this infection. The way I see it is that Truvada is a backup in the case that condom fails.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new cases of HIV every year is relatively stable, at about 50,000 new infections. The rates of other STDs, such as gonorrhea, are on the rise. Syphilis rates are also creeping up, especially for gay and bisexual men. With these numbers in mind, the CDC stresses the importance of ongoing condom use.