A 27-year-old man from Sydney has become the seventh person in the world to contract HIV despite taking anti-retroviral medication, reports confirmed.
A few days before Christmas last year, Steven Spencer found out that his regular sexual health test returned a positive result for HIV.
For a time, he has been undergoing treatment and taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication that is designed to prevent the spread of the disease.
"I remember I was left sitting in the doctor's waiting room for 15 minutes and then came the diagnosis," Spencer told ABC News Australia.
Receiving The Diagnosis Was A 'Rollercoaster'
A day after he had received the diagnosis, Spencer immediately began his treatment for HIV. It had also been six weeks since his viral load, which was undetectable. It meant that the virus will not be transferred via sexual intercourse.
Spencer said that although he feels unlucky, the last thing he wanted was for people to doubt the effectiveness of PrEP. He has been a PrEP advocate for a long time and remains supportive of the drug.
"Even though my case may sow a seed of doubt, I don't think it should at all," he added.
What Is Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)?
More than half a million patients around the world take PrEP. It is an anti-viral medication taken by people who do not have HIV but who are at risk of getting it. It is recommended to be taken before sex either as a low dose or a higher dose that is taken two hours before sex and then another tablet after sex.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug works by preventing the development of HIV and it is taken as a pill (Truvada) that contains tenofovir and emtricitabine.
The CDC says that the drug reduces the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk by up to 92 percent. One important thing to note is that PrEP is less effective when it is taken inconsistently.
In 2018, PrEP was added on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme after studies had been done involving 14,000 gay and bisexual men across Australia.
This helped reduce the cost of a three-month supply of anti-viral drugs from a whopping $2,000 to $120, with some users importing the drug overseas.
Edwina Right, an associate professor from the Australian Society for Sexual Health Medicines, said the method that involves taking two tablets before sex and another two after 48 hours has shown significant results.
Right said there was a trial that showed reduced HIV transmission by 86 percent and that they are still waiting for further studies to determine if taking the drug daily is just as effective.
Taking PrEP Is Still Highly Recommended
Despite the development of Spencer's case, health advocates believe that PrEP should still be taken to prevent HIV infection. Advocates from the Terrence Higgins Trust urge people not to panic about the effectiveness of the drug.
Ian Green, the chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said prescribed PrEP is nearly 100 percent effective at stopping HIV transmission.
"It's vital that this story doesn't put people off accessing PrEP for HIV prevention," Green told HuffingtonPost.
Green added that there are thousands of people taking PrEP drugs and only a handful have developed HIV. He said those cases are lessons to be learned from.