The first part of a diary charting one gay man’s experience with taking PEP, the cocktail of drugs which may save you from contracting HIV if taken fast enough after exposure to the virus
I like to think of myself as relatively knowledgeable on matters of sexual health. I undergo a full sexual MOT every six months at the wonderful 56 Dean Street clinic in London’s Soho and am fully versed on the HIV pin prick test, which takes just two minutes to give a result, covering your sexual history up until six weeks before the test.
Bearing this in mind, it seems wonderfully ironic that one of the bastions of sexual health – my condom – should fail on me at the pivotal, or climatic if you will, moment of intercourse last weekend. As I laid back I found myself not in a state of post-coital bliss but one of anxiety and worry. My partner is not a regular partner, so to speak, but I had no reason to doubt his assertion that he had recently tested negative. However, the sensible Susan that I am thought better than to play with the game of life.
An hour later we were both in A&E. It had been just 45 minutes previous that the ‘emission’ had taken place. And 15 of those post-emission minutes had been spent researching PEP (post-exposure Prophylaxis), the mixture of drugs which can help prevent the infection of HIV if taken within 72 hours of exposure (but ideally one hour). What was scariest within this research were the accounts of people who had gone through the course of PEP. ‘Vomiting!’, ‘Diarrhoea!’, ‘Fatigue!’ were just a few of the stand-out headlines.
If there was a moment of doubt in my PEP journey, this was it, but I couldn’t let a month worth of feeling rough counter-balance a lifetime of staying healthy.
And this is, in part, why I decided to write this diary. As the incredible doctor took me through the consultation she laid the treatment out bare. She did not judge me and answered my questions honestly and thoughtfully. She herself had been through the treatment in a professional capacity owing to an encounter with a rogue needle. Her assertion that she worked through the medication brought me comfort.
I was given a five day supply to be getting on with and would then need to return for a follow-up. The first dose was to be taken in front of the doctor, coupled with a regular HIV test. Upon leaving the hospital I had a headache and was extremely tired, but then it was 1.30am in the morning and I was technically still hungover!
Over the next few days I gradually noticed a few of the symptoms arrive and then disappear. The odd bout of diarrhoea, a slight headache. It was, however, the fatigue and aching which I experienced most. Yet even this has not stopped me leading one of the busiest weeks of my year so far and, whilst I may have not been 100%, I certainly acted it.
Yesterday I had completed the five day cycle and was in need of the further 23 day batch of drugs. This time I visited 56 Dean Street and was again treated completely non-judgmentally and given sensible advice. A pin prick test I took there and then came out negative, a good start!
I have told just a handful of people that I am taking PEP – a close friend, my line manager and the editor of this website. The first two I’m sure you can understand but I imagine you are wondering why I chose to express my experiences of PEP on such a public forum and, possibly, why I am choosing to remain anonymous.
Let me say first that I don’t think taking PEP is anything to be ashamed of, in fact I believe those that are brave enough to recognize a mistake has happened and take the necessary precautions should be hugely proud that they have not let one action define them. However, the reasons for taking PEP cross over into a personal boundary of my sexual history and, to an extent, preferences.
Not everyone is and will be as broad minded as I am and I would not like to take any further risks right now, be that with prospective employers or the like.
As to why I am telling my story, well as I explained, I was that guy, lying in bed, wondering to what extent a small amount of fluid might have been affecting my body at that very moment. I was that guy who almost put off that journey to A&E because I was worried about the side effects of the drugs. I was that guy who was going to wait until two days later when the proper clinics were open again.
Now I have the chance to explain, with first hand experience, why it is so important for anyone who has put themselves at risk to rectify the situation as soon as they can, any time, any day.
I will continue to keep you updated on my journey. Keep safe.
For more information about PEP visit THT.