Medication prescribed for the first time in Northern Ireland to protect people from HIV

Around 100 new cases of HIV are diagnosed in Northern Ireland every year

NORTHERN Ireland's new dedicated HIV Prevention Clinic will provide medication for the first time to protect people in the region from contracting the virus.

PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) are tablets taken by people who have tested negative for the virus to reduce their risk of getting HIV by up to 86 per cent.

A Department of Health spokesman said it is the first time it has been prescribed by clinicians in the north, where around 100 new cases of HIV are diagnosed every year.

The numbers diagnosed are continuing to rise, while falling in the rest of the UK.

Dr Carol Emerson, lead HIV clinician at the Belfast trust, and who is leading this new service, described it as "a very exciting development for GUM (genito-urinary medicine) provision in Northern Ireland".

"It is so important to empower people to protect themselves from acquiring HIV."

Lifetime treatment costs for one person with HIV currently standing at around £380,000, leading supporters of the pre-treatment to stress the huge sums that will be saved by the NHS.

However, because the drugs are targeted at those who are at high risk of getting HIV, it has attracted controversy, with claims it will encourage high-risk sexual behaviour.

Former DUP health minister Jim Wells, who opposes making PrEP available, told Radio Ulster's Talkback programme that even if a drug that could prevent lung cancer was developed it should not be prescribed to the public and instead people should continue to be encouraged to give up smoking.

The treatment will be funded with money secured by the DUP's Westminster voting pact with the Conservatives.

The new clinic promises to "transform and improve sexual health services", offering "comprehensive" testing for sexual transmitted infections and behavioural interventions aimed at reducing unsafe sex.

Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride said it will "truly transform and improve health and social care in Northern Ireland" with a service that is "preventative, dynamic" and with people "at the heart".

"It has the potential to help us tackle the rise in new diagnoses of HIV in Northern Ireland and I look forward to celebrating its successes," he said.

The two-year pilot clinic, which began in July at the Royal Victoria Hospital's GUM facility, has a £450,000 investment in 2018/19 from the £100 million transformation fund.

People can access the prevention package through their local GUM clinic where they will be assessed, advised and referred where appropriate to the prevention clinic.

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