This conference is a marathon. Day 4 and I am exhausted. So many people, protests and presentations to attend - it's quite overwhelming. One of the highlights for me yesterday was a packed oral poster session on PEP, PrEP and HIV testing held over lunch. The presenters only had 5 minutes each to present their key findings, and there was spirited discussion from the audience. A presentation by Antonio Urbina (St Luke's Roosevelt Hospital) reviewed the delivery of non-occupational post-exposure-prophylaxis (PEP) in emergency departments in New York City. 216 cases were reviewed. While apparently very successful (94% completed the course and only one person seroconverted), the audience questioned the intensity and length of the PEP regime - a 4 week course based on Combivir, which often causes nausea. There was debate about whether a shorter and better tolerated regime could be used. One of the other presenters in the session, Kristen Underhill (Yale) picked up on how negative experiences of antiretroviral drugs from a course of PEP can have lasting consequences. Kristen had conducted group interviews with gay and bisexual men in Rhode Island to explore the acceptability of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). She found that men who had had a previous bad experience with PEP found the idea of PrEP very unappealing.
The other standout presentation was from Alex Carballo-Diéguez (HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies, NYC). Alex was reporting the results of his study of home HIV testing among 'high risk' HIV-negative gay men in New York City. A small group of men (n=32) was enrolled and given OraQuick oral fluid rapid test kits to use at home (the test has just been approved by the US FDA for sale over-the-counter). The men were encouraged to test themselves and their casual sex partners. Around 100 tests were performed. Telephone support/counselling was offered but rarely used. Five sexual partners tested positive for HIV during the study. Very few adverse incidents were reported. When quizzed by a member of the audience who was concerned about relying on a test with a longer window period than a lab-based HIV test, Alex noted, "Sometimes when looking for the optimal, we overlook the good enough." While debate will undoubtedly continue about the merits of home-based testing, I think this research illustrates that home testing can function pretty well as a harm reduction tool and, as Alex noted, can give gay men a greater sense of control over their health and HIV status. It's certainly motivated me to work with my colleagues in Sydney and Melbourne to do a similar study of home-based HIV testing.