Oral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), taken as a once-daily pill, has been hailed the world over as one of the major HIV prevention interventions in the fight against Aids.
Yet apart from sex workers, very few South Africans are using PrEP or even know that it exists. The latest Department of Health (DoH) figures show that just 3011 young people (aged 15 to 24) are using PrEP.
This is despite the fact that, if taken as prescribed, PrEP can reduce one’s risk of contracting HIV through sex by over 90%.
“Three thousand is a woefully low figure. It’s not clear why something that clearly works is not being rolled out aggressively, particularly for young women,” said Professor Francois Venter from the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.
The HIV prevalence for young women in South Africa is over three times higher than for young men.
Until last year, PrEP was targeted at other high-risk groups such as sex workers and men who have sex with men.
But after the decision to extend access to young people, especially women, uptake has been slow and the DoH has been criticised for failing to prioritise PrEP for young women.
They were unable to provide Health-e News with the disaggregated PrEP data for this key population.
But the DoH’s Dr Yogan Pillay estimates that “around two-thirds are adolescent girls and young women”.
PrEP is especially important for young women in violent relationships, yet it has not received the national attention of other interventions, such as the government’s voluntary medical male circumcision campaign to prevent HIV which, Venter said, “is one of the most successful in the world”.