A drug that reduces HIV infections by 90 percentS

A single pill could reduce your risk of HIV infection dramatically, a new study found. But are you willing to spend $12,000 a year and risk headaches and nausea just to stay HIV-negative?

According to the New York Times, an existing HIV medication called Truvada reduced HIV infection rates dramatically in a study of 2,500 men:

In the study, published Tuesday by the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that the hundreds of gay men randomly assigned to take the drugs were 44 percent less likely to get infected than the equal number assigned to take a placebo.

But when only the men whose blood tests showed they had taken their pill faithfully every day were considered, the pill was more than 90 percent effective, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of the division of the National Institutes of Health, which paid for the study along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"That's huge," Dr. Fauci said. "That says it all for me."

The bad news is that Truvada costs $12,000 to $14,000 in the U.S., although a generic version is available in the third world that costs just 40 cents a pill. And although Medicare and insurance companies will pay for HIV drugs for people who are already infected, there are no policies on covering the drugs for uninfected people. And the pill does have "minor" side effects, notably nausea and headaches. Also, some researchers are worried that widespread use of Truvada for preventive purposes could lead to drug-resistant strains of HIV — if someone gets infected and keeps taking just Truvada, the virus could develop a resistance to it, and they could pass on that resistant strain to others.

But still, this is a major step forward in the battle against HIV — now we just need to figure out the most cost-effective and safest way to get it to high-risk populations in the third world. [New York Times via The Atlantic]