By Sonia Elks
LONDON, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — England will join a growing list of countries offering HIV-prevention pill to all those at high risk of catching the virus, the British government announced on Sunday, in a move hailed as a "milestone moment" by health campaigners.
Tens of thousands of people will be able to get the highly effective pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs for free later this year through the 1-year £16 million ($20 million) national funding programme, said the Department of Health.
"This will benefit tens of thousands of people's lives, and drive us towards our ambition of zero HIV transmissions in this decade," said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Studies show that PrEP can cut by 99% the transmission rate of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, and it is recommended by the World Health Organization as an additional prevention option for those at substantial risk.
However, its availability is patchy worldwide, with some countries not yet approving the drug and others not making it available for free through national health services.
More than 100,000 people were estimated to be living with HIV in the UK in 2018.
However, in England, the PrEP was only available to those at risk of catching the virus if they were able to enroll on a trial run by the national health service.
Other regions in Britain have different policies. PrEP is available in Scotland through sexual health clinics.
England's stance had prompted campaigns and legal battles from HIV/AIDS groups who said it was leaving lives on the line.
HIV and AIDS groups welcomed the announcement but said it was vital to ensure that provision continued once the current 1-year funding ends, and authorities must ensure that under-served groups including women and trans people also access PrEP.
"This is a milestone moment in a 5-year battle," said Deborah Gold, chief executive of National AIDS Trust. "While we're relieved at this announcement, making the medication available is not the end goal — it's just one part of the struggle ... Only when we reach every single person who needs PrEP can we harness its full potential."
(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Belinda Goldmsith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org).