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Pharmac still deaf to HIV experts' pleas

Posted in: New Zealand Daily News
By Daily News - 4th November 2015

Despite calls from many quarters government drug funding agency Pharmac has yet to make access to HIV medications immediately on diagnosis a high priority.

On Sunday night gay men's health and HIV researcher Dr Peter Saxton, noting that the number of people who contracted HIV in New Zealand last year was the highers annual number since the epidemic began, said 40% of those newly diagnosed, most of whom are gay or bisexual men, had already had the virus for four years or more.

Saxton said this meant they were therefore not getting the benefit of being on HIV medications for that four year period and could have been passing on HIV all that timer. He also noted that even when diagnosed many men are not able to get onto medication right away despite calls for that immediate access from HIV prevention workers, clincians and even the World Health Organisation.

People with HIV who start medications immediately in most cases have their HIV viral load reduced to such a low level that they are extremely unlikely to pass on HIV even when having condomless sex. "The reality is that condomless sex is happening, especially amongst men who are hooking up on line and who are having a greater number of sexual partners than their peers," Saxton said.

However Pharmac, the drug funding agency, is continuing to shy off funding early access to HIV medications, calling it only a "medium priority."

"PHARMAC received advice from its anti-infective subcommitte... about widening access to HIV treatments in February 2014. The subcommittee recommended funding this option and gave its recommendation a medium priority," Sarah Fitt, Director of Operations at Pharmac has told Daily News.

"Recommendations from clinical committees are important inputs to PHARMAC’s decision-making process," she explains. "PHARMAC’s role is to make funding choices from within the available budget, using our nine Decision Criteria. To date, other funding options have taken higher priority over this option.

At this stage, Fitt says, widening access to HIV remains a funding option that PHARMAC could pursue. She advises that PHARMAC currently funds "21 treatments that can be used for HIV infection, with total spend in 2014/15 being $32.8 million."

Dr Saxton was speaking at the launch of a month-long awareness campaign leading up to World Aids Day on December 1st.

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