by Vanessa Apea

This International Women’s Day, Preventx Medical Director Dr Vanessa Apea reflects on the access and support for women in the prevention of HIV.

I have dedicated much of my professional life to the fight against HIV, as a consultant working in Sexual Health and HIV medicine. My clinical work and research have always been entwined with the need to reduce inequalities in healthcare, particularly at the intersections of race and gender.

Around a third of people living with HIV in the UK are women and a quarter of all new HIV diagnoses are in women. However, women are not part of majority of the work fighting HIV in the UK.

The global ambition to achieve no new transmissions of HIV by 2030 requires wide-spread and systematic testing, which Preventx is proud to be making more accessible and widely available than ever before. Another crucial component is the need to maximise access to effective HIV prevention. The cornerstone of HIV prevention is PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), which is a pill that helps to protect people from getting HIV.

Through taking PrEP, people at risk can dramatically reduce their chance of getting HIV. They are supported by risk-reduction counselling and support, routine testing and health education. Last year, Preventx began asking users in certain areas if they take PrEP, and over 40,000 test kits have been ordered by PrEP users. Of these, 98% identified as male.

In a 2018 report ‘Women and HIV’, by the Terrence Higgins Trust and the Sophia Forum, nearly half the respondents (42%) felt that barriers prevent them from testing for HIV, and no woman had yet chosen to access PrEP.

PrEP must be accessible for all communities who need it if we truly want to end HIV transmission in the UK. If we are to meet the zero transmissions target, increasing the uptake of PrEP by women, trans women and non-binary people, trans men, racially minoritised populations, and those working in the sex industry is crucial.

The low uptake of amongst women and other groups has many factors. From people not believing they are at risk of HIV, and the stigma around HIV, to a lack of awareness of PrEP or understanding how to access it.

This will only change through engagement with diverse communities of women and other groups to explore their needs in relation to PrEP awareness and knowledge, enabling the co-creation of appropriate solutions.

For our part, Preventx is working to ensure there is appropriate and reliable access to the testing that PrEP users need – as anyone taking PrEP is required to undergo regular sexual health testing. We are also looking to make access to PrEP easier and more accessible, so watch this space…

About the author:

Dr Vanessa Apea is Medical Director for Preventx. Vanessa is a highly experienced sexual health clinician, researcher and speaker. Since 2011, Vanessa has been a consultant physician in Genito-urinary and HIV medicine at Barts Health NHS Trust, and clinical lead for five of those years. She is an Honorary Senior Lecturer and the deputy academic lead for equality, diversity and inclusion within Queen Mary University of London’s School of Medicine and Dentistry. Vanessa is passionate about reducing inequalities in healthcare. She has made this a central focus of her clinical work and received an NHS 70 Windrush Award for her contribution to improving health equity. She has an established track record of exploring barriers to engagement in care in marginalised populations and has a particular research interest in participatory approaches and the intersection of race, gender and health. She is a member of the London Fast-Track Cities Initiative stigma subgroup working to get London to zero HIV stigma. She is also the medical director of NAZ, a charity advocating for high quality sexual health and HIV support services for racially minoritised communities. Vanessa is a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and a Fulbright scholar with a Masters in Public Health from Harvard University.