Large Study Confirms Taking Pills To Prevent HIV Doesn’t Lead To Riskier Sex

In this May 10, 2012 file photo, Dr. Lisa Sterman holds up a Truvada pill CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF CHIU, FILE
In this May 10, 2012 file photo, Dr. Lisa Sterman holds up a Truvada pill CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF CHIU, FILE

Giving gay men a daily pill to prevent HIV transmission doesn’t lead them to take fewer safety precautions when they engage in sexual activity, according to the results from a large new study published in the Lancet. Those findings should help ease the concerns of some critics of the pill, known as Truvada, which is emerging as a new tactic in the global fight against AIDS epidemic.

The public health community is increasingly optimistic about Truvada’s potential to prevent future HIV infections; both U.S. health officials and the World Health Organization have officially endorsed the daily use of the pill for people at the greatest risk of contracting the virus. However, some HIV prevention advocates have resisted that approach, arguing that giving more gay men access to Truvada will simply encourage them to engage in riskier sex because they’ll assume they can skip latex condoms altogether.

Michael Weinstein, the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is one of Truvada’s biggest critics. He’s called it a “party drug” and insists that its supporters are mainly interested in having sex without condoms. With the widespread use of the pill, he argues, the rates of other sexually transmitted infections in the LGBT community will actually rise.

But researchers involved in the new study, called iPrEx OLE and released during a prominent international AIDS conference currently being held in Australia, found evidence to dispute those claims. According to their results, study participants regularly taking Truvada didn’t engage in more unprotected sex with additional sexual partners. The rate of unprotected anal sex among participants actually ended up falling over the two-year study period, as did the number of sexual partners they reported.

Researchers concluded they found “no evidence of risk compensation” among men who have sex with men who opt to use this method of HIV prevention, which means that participants taking Truvada didn’t actually treat the daily pill as a license to take more sexual risks.

The notion that giving people access to sexual prevention tools will increase “promiscuity” isn’t contained to the gay community; this is also a widespread concern when it comes to the resources that women need to manage their sexual health. Specifically, critics claim that giving teen girls the HPV vaccine to prevent transmission of that sexually transmitted infection, as well as providing young women with ready access to birth control to prevent pregnancy, will ultimately spur them to make riskier sexual choices. Those myths have been debunked by several studies that, just like the latest research on Truvada, demonstrate those prevention methods aren’t actually linked to risky sex.

Nonetheless, this misguided attitude toward sexuality continues to pervade some of the health policies in this country. For instance, based on similar fears that teaching high schoolers about sex will lead them to have more sex, kids in the majority of states across the U.S. aren’t required to learn accurate information about birth control and STDs in their health classes. In fact, most American teens don’t receive formal sex education training until after they’ve already started having sex. And that brings us right back to the AIDS epidemic — because rates of HIV infection are the highest in the areas of the country where kids aren’t taught about it in school.