File photo: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

London – Delays in rolling out an HIV prevention pill in Britain are putting gay men's lives at risk, with thousands buying it online without medical supervision, HIV campaigners said on Wednesday.

Britain is lagging behind the United States and Kenya, where the highly-effective drug is more widely available, as health authorities only give the pills to gay and bisexual men taking part in a three-year clinical trial, which ends in 2020.

"This is a scandal," said Will Nutland, co-founder of PrEPster, which is lobbying for the once-daily pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pill, also known by its drug brand name Truvada, to be offered in routine HIV prevention services.

"We have a technology that is cheap, accessible, is effective and is cost-effective, yet we're still being denied full roll-out of this drug," said Nutland, who is also a doctor.

"We know of people who have attempted to access PrEP and then have ended up being diagnosed with HIV three or six months later."

Studies show that PrEP can cut by 99% the transmission rate of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. Some 340 000 people are taking it globally, according to New York-based advocacy group AVAC, 40% of them in the United States.

The number of places on Britain's National Health Service (NHS) trial was more than doubled to 26 000 in January from 10 000 due to soaring demand, but no date has been set for a potential national roll-out.

A survey of almost 2 400 PrEP users in Britain published on Wednesday, by the UK's public health agency and PrEPster and iwantPrEPnow advocacy groups, found that 54% got free pills via the NHS trial and 37% bought them privately, usually online.

Some people are also buying PrEP informally through friends and contacts, while a private doctor's prescription costs about 400 pounds ($482) a month, according to PrEPster.

The survey found that only half of those who paid for PrEP privately took the necessary kidney function tests before or while taking the pills, and nearly a quarter had to stop taking the drug because it was too expensive.

It is important to test for HIV and Hepatitis B before starting PrEP and to have regular urine and blood tests to ensure the drug is not damaging bones or kidneys, PrEPster said on its website, which advises on how to buy pills safely online.

"Despite the side effects of taking PrEP being minimal for many users, it's vital anyone wanting to or currently taking PrEP has the relevant screenings," said Liam Beattie, a spokesman for the Terrence Higgins Trust HIV charity.

Some 38 million people globally are living with HIV, with 1.7 million newly infected in 2018, according to UNAids, the United Nations' Aids agency.

Reuters