We should follow Norway's lead on PrEP – they don't make gay men feel like a burden on the state

Norway aren’t only making PrEP available, they’re making it available free of charge, the first county in the world to do so. It sends an important message that there is no shame and no embarrassment in taking the drug

Michael Segalov
Monday 24 October 2016 12:08
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Norway has announced that they will be providing PrEP on their national health service
Norway has announced that they will be providing PrEP on their national health service

Let’s get something out the way: most of us have sex. Yes, it might not be very British to talk about it, but it’s how we all got here.

Having sex involves taking risks. Like most of life’s pleasures, partaking can involve a balancing act of safety measures and a thirst for joy: the toss-up between bungee jumping with no harness for the thrill, and wrapping yourself in cotton wool to ensure you never stub a toe.

For most of us, there’s a happy middle-ground.

But unwanted pregnancies, STI’s, a bit of carpet burn? Despite the best of intentions, sex can leave us in the lurch, and our health service is there to help us when it goes awry. Except, right now, it isn’t like that for everyone.

As it stands the National Health Service in this country is fighting an expensive legal battle, after the High Court ruled that NHS England has the power to commission PrEP.

HIV in numbers

While NHS England are arguing it’s not their responsibility to provide the life-saving treatment (it can help to reduce the risk of transmission of HIV by more than 90 per cent), a debate continues that’s shrouded in judgment and moralisation. The “blameless sick” will suffer to stop gay men contracting HIV.

As a battle rages on in this country, with people dying in the process, the Norwegian government has announced that they’ll be providing PrEP on their national health service free of charge.

The decision in Norway is practical: it avoids judgement, instead putting the safety of those who live there first. Leif-Ove Hansen, the President of HIV Norway stated frankly that “condom use is on the decline and we are happy that PrEP now is an integrated part of the public health service.” It’s a refreshing and important approach.

Norway aren’t only making it available, they’re making it available free of charge, the first county in the world to do so. It sends an important message to those who take the life-saving medicine: there is no shame and no embarrassment – you’re not a burden on the state.

Rather than moralising or judging publicly the decisions that gay men make, a decision was made on practical terms based on facts. If men aren’t using protection in their sexual encounters, it’s imperative to reduce the risk in any way we can.

As it stands you can get PrEP privately in the country, but with a price tag in the region of £400 a month. It is presenting lifesaving medicine as a luxury, and one that few can afford.

Others in Britain are forced to purchase their medication from abroad, buying generic versions of the drugs through buying groups or unofficial websites. It entrenches a stigma of the underserving sick, forcing dialogue out of the public domain instead underground, and leaving only the most privileged or knowledgeable with access to treatment.

That’s not to say that gay men don’t need to talk about sex – we’re in the midst of a sexual health crisis. According to 2014 statistics, the most up to date available, more than half of people newly diagnosed with HIV in 2014 were men who have sex with men. To put this in context, gay men make up an estimated 2 -3 per cent of the UK population.

In addition, 2014 saw HIV diagnoses reach an all-time peak amongst the gay and bisexual male community, at 3,360. It’s the highest figure ever reported.

We can’t just rely on PrEP to protect our community from harm. An honest and open discussion about how we do it is vital – but that’s a decision that our community needs to make.

This lack of open dialogue can’t be used as an excuse for those in power to judge or wash their hands of this issue. The Norwegian government has worked this out already, and it’s time NHS England followed their lead – too many lives depend on it.

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