In recent months I experienced something I never thought I’d have to deal with when I faced the possibility that I might have contracted HIV.
I have been sexually responsible for my entire adult life and have always been heavily influenced by warnings of the past regarding HIV and AIDS, however all it takes is one moment of passion to let your guard down and you can find yourself in a situation similar to mine which resulted in me taking the HIV emergency medication known as PEP. The days leading up to my 28-day treatment were possibly some of the scariest of my life. Experiencing this drug first hand and the people I encountered along the way brought on a variety of conflicting emotions and an understanding of sexual health I never thought I’d have to comprehend.
What is PEP?
Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a month-long course of medication which aims to prevent HIV infection after the virus has potentially entered a person’s body. The drug is used as an emergency measure on a person who may have been exposed to the virus, either through infection or sexual transmission. Although PEP is not 100% guaranteed to always work, the success rate is very high. It’s very important to make clear that PEP should not be considered an alternative to using condoms as prevention for contracting HIV. Using condoms is the most effective method of preventing HIV transmission as well as other sexually transmitted diseases.
The drug should also not be viewed as some form of a morning after pill either – PEP is a powerful drug and users like me risk side effects, not to mention the fact PEP isn’t taken on just one occasion like with morning after pills. I myself am lucky enough to have not experienced any side-effects of PEP, but the potential side-effects include prolonged headaches, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. If you experience any of these side effects you should not stop taking the medication as once stopped, PEP will not be effective. Contact your doctor to discuss any issues you may be encountering on the drug to get an informed decision on what to do next. Timing is also crucial when it comes to PEP. If the course of drugs has not started within 72 hours of potential infection, the drug will no longer be effective.
Why I took PEP
My reasoning for using this often misunderstood drug was down to one thing: paranoia. The partner I had engaged in potentially risky sexual activity with was someone I know to be practising safe sex, and although we weren’t in a relationship we were very open with one another about our fears of HIV risks in the gay community and HIV tests we had previously taken. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling of ‘what if?’ after this particular sexual encounter.
After two days of endless overthinking, excessive Googling and sheer panic I decided to bite the bullet and visit my nearest sexual health clinic. On this particular evening the clinic stated upon my entrance that the session was for appointment-only patients – my heart sank as this was my final chance to obtain PEP before the 72 hour window had closed. However, after quietly asking if I could speak to a nurse in private I was humbled to learn how genuinely concerned and helpful the staff at the clinic were. I was ushered into a private room where I explained my situation and within five minutes the nurse had made space for me and I was on the waiting list.
After a short wait I was seen by the doctor who carefully took note of my situation, perfectly explained what PEP was and reassured me that coming to the clinic after potentially being exposed to HIV was the right thing to do. Hearing that my decision to take PEP was the right one was all I wanted to hear from a medical professional at that time. The doctor agreed with my sentiment that if you’re asking yourself ‘what if?’ then you should absolutely take no risks when it comes to HIV, because, ultimately, the only sexual health status you can be 100% sure of is your own. After taking a few blood samples and a quick HIV test, which is something I had done many times over the past few years, I was given my PEP medication.
The instructions were to take one tablet in the morning and two at night, taken exactly 12 hours apart at the same time every day. I was however only given a three day supply of the drug. The doctor informed me that this is normal practice and it’s up to the patient to pick up the remainder of their 28 day supply from their pharmacy. It is absolutely imperative that users of PEP plan ahead to make sure their supply of pills does not run out before retrieving the full medication.
My experience with PEP, which I am currently still using until my 28 days are up, has been both fearful and insightful. In the short amount of time between considering starting a course of the drug and actually taking it I learned more about HIV and the treatments available than ever before. I also came to appreciate the services we have available in this country – if I wasn’t lucky enough to live in such a privileged part of the world who knows how I would be forced to handle a situation like this. Life after PEP will most likely enhance my sexual health paranoia, however I believe that being overly careful is always better than being slack when it comes to an issue such as this. Although I’m confident my treatment will be successful, I am currently still in my PEP bubble which involves a daily routine of taking pills with an alarm reminder at either end of my days. In the end, whether I actually needed the drug or not in the first place, it was most definitely worth it.