- It should help people who can’t easily get the drug right now protect themselves against HIV.
UK high street health and beauty retailer Superdrug has started to offer PrEP through its online doctor.
It’s a first for the UK and should help people in remote areas access the drug that can prevent people from getting HIV.
The move comes after last week’s announcement from the government that PrEP will be available for free in sexual health clinics across England. Free PrEP is already available in Scotland and likely to continue in Wales with Northern Ireland to make an announcement soon.
The drug, which can be taken daily or with a special ‘on-demand’ regimen, is 99% effective at preventing HIV. A combination of HIV negative people taking PrEP, prompt HIV testing and putting people on effective HIV treatment fast, has already slashed HIV rates.
Michael Henry, healthcare director, at Superdrug said:
‘Following the DHSC’s announcement, we’re further increasing PrEP’s availability and making it more easily accessible to people who need it most via our Online Doctor PrEP service.
‘We offer a fully remote service, where people who don’t have easy access to a sexual health clinic – due to their location, covid restrictions or lack of appointments – can access a full PrEP service from home.
‘Our aim is to enable people to make informed choices and assume responsibility for their own healthcare.’
PrEP take-up has been particularly high among gay and bi men. But with the drug not routinely available on the NHS until now, many have bought it online.
In that context, Superdrug’s service is nothing new. However, the entry of a major British brand into the market is a major change.
Dr Michael Brady, medical director, at Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) said:
‘It’s great to see a high street store like Superdrug making PrEP easy to access through its website. This move will also help raise awareness of this game-changer for preventing HIV; especially amongst groups that might not have heard much about PrEP before.’
Indeed, one challenge to PrEP advocates has been educating people who may benefit from it. Gay and bi men have seized on the drug – swiftly filling pilot studies around the UK.
By contrast black, Asian and other UK ethnic minorities, women and trans people – also at higher risk of HIV – have been slow to take it up.
Right now, sexual health clinics across the UK are rolling out their PrEP services too. These include screening to ensure people can take PrEP safely and regular sexual health check-ups.
Brady added: ‘While many people may prefer this service, it’s also important to point out that PrEP is currently available for free via sexual health clinics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and this will very soon be the case across England too.’
As well as providing PrEP, Superdrug will also be doing screening to ensure customers can take it safely. They told GSN this will include essential blood and kidney function tests.
Customers will be able to choose between two PrEP test kits. The basic one, for £39.99, will check kidney function and whether you already have HIV. The ‘full’ kit will also test for hepatitis B and C, but costs £99.99.
Of course, those using NHS clinics can go those tests free. Likewise, a more complicated question is access to regular sexual health screening.
People on PrEP are not reliant on condoms to avoid HIV. Therefore, many choose not to use condoms – even though doctors and Superdrug advise them to continue to do so. And while having condomless sex, they are at greater risk of other sexually transmitted infections.
With routine testing, doctors can spot infections including gonorrhea, syphillis and chlamydia quickly. Swift treatment can avoid them seriously damaging people’s health and stop people spreading them to other sexual partners.
People accessing PrEP through clinics will continue to have frequent sexual health tests.
However, those using Superdrug should still take these tests. A spokesperson for the retailer told GSN:
‘You rightly suggest … people may well be at higher risk of other STIs.
‘At Superdrug Online Doctor, we have a well-established sexual health service, providing both accurate and comprehensive testing, and treatment for conditions like chlamydia, trichomoniasis and herpes.
‘We make sure that at every step of your journey through our service (from researching it, to ordering, and then returning to repeat the process), we educate you and advise you of all the other tests you should do in order to make sure you’re free of other STIs too.’
Like NHS clinics and THT, it recommends STI testing every three months. This is particularly important for those having condomless sex with casual partners.
People can buy tests online. But some parts of the UK offer free postal testing – as well as tests in clinics being free for those who can access them.
However, Superdrug says it is ‘giving people a choice between going through the NHS or doing it privately’. As such, it could help spread PrEP availability and help campaigners create the HIV-free future they say is now in sight.