Alberta gov't announces universal coverage for HIV-prevention drug PrEP

Alberta will be providing universal coverage for PrEP — an HIV-prevention drug that is up to 99 per cent effective at stopping the transmission of the disease — beginning Oct. 1.

"It's about public health. It's about promoting health and preventing illness," said Premier Rachel Notley at a surprise announcement during a fundraiser brunch for Camp fYrefly, a leadership retreat for queer and trans youth on Saturday.

The event was held during Calgary's Pride Week.

"By making it more accessible and more affordable to people who are at greater risk of getting HIV, then we're able to reduce the incidences of HIV. It's that simple."

PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a daily pill that works similarly to a vaccine when taken regularly — but its high cost and difficulty to find a physician who is familiar with prescribing it can be barriers for many.

The generic of the medication is $ 250 per month — about $ 8.30 a day — and the brand name, Truvada, can cost up to $ 1,000 per month.

Truvada costs about $ 1,000 a month without insurance. (CBC)

Notley said along with coverage, the government will be expanding the number of physicians that are designated to prescribe PrEP so it will be available across the province.

Pam Krause, president and CEO of Calgary's Centre for Sexuality, said the announcement was a vital one for public health.

"It's a huge step forward to give people coverage and access," Krause said.

About 80,500 Canadians have been diagnosed with HIV, according to non-profit organization HIV Community Link, and about one in five people don't know they have been infected.

Last year alone in Alberta, more than 200 people were diagnosed.

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The virus, which weakens the immune system, is not curable, but can be managed with treatment. It can lead to AIDS — a deadly syndrome that occurs when the immune system has been severely damaged. 

"This was real progress for people in preventing a very destructive disease, very preventable disease that will reduce costs and save lives," said MLA David Swann, who is also a medical doctor.

Alex Smith is a Calgary nurse and founder of the Davie Buyers Club — a website that offers a workaround for people to access PrEP. 

The guide shows Canadians how to order a 90-day supply of the medication — the maximum legal quantity that can be imported into Canada for personal use — from India, Thailand and Singapore. It's then shipped to a U.S. mailbox the recipient has pre-registered for, and then they cross the border to personally pick up the medication.

"I look forward to the day when the Davie Buyers Club​ is no longer necessary," said Smith.

"I think it's well overdue, because too many Albertans have gone without or have had to travel to another country to receive this medication … I think this announcement will result in a dramatic decrease in HIV infections in the province going forward."

Alberta is the seventh province in Canada to introduce PrEp coverage.

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman will provide further details on how coverage will be rolled out in the coming weeks, Notley said.

With files from Terri Trembath

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