The provincial government announced Saturday it will cover an expensive HIV prevention drug.
Premier Rachel Notley made the surprise announcement to a standing ovation at the Premier’s Pride Brunch at the Hyatt Regency Calgary.
On Oct. 1, the province will begin providing universal coverage to eligible Albertans for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) — a daily tablet that prevents the spread of HIV.
Currently, PrEP costs about $3,000 per year or $250 per month, according to the Alberta government.
“By making it accessible and more affordable to people who are at greater risk of getting HIV, then we’re able to reduce the incidence of HIV,” Notley said. “It’s that simple.”
Alberta is the latest to join B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in covering the drug.
In the last few years, HIV rates have been rising, with an 11.6 per cent increase in cases from 2015 to 2016, according to the latest federal data — Alberta has the fourth highest rate of new HIV cases in Canada.
Since 1985, more than 84,000 people have been diagnosed as HIV positive, the Public Health Agency of Canada said.
So with those stats in mind, the drug coverage is seen as must.
“It’s a huge step forward to have public coverage and access,” said Pam Krause, president and CEO of the Centre for Sexuality.
She said the drug is “90 to 99 per cent” effective at preventing HIV.
The cost of the disease to society is very high, Krause said.
“HIV remains quite persistent in the community of men who have sex with men,” Krause said. “So it’s really important that we’re not just looking at universal strategies but targeted strategies so that people can remain safe and remain sexually active and comfortable in their communities.”
It’s about getting rid of barriers and working to reduce stigma, she explained.
“Safe sex remains super important in all circumstances, but really, HIV is not just an STI,” Krause said.
“HIV remains, whether we see it as often or not, as the potential life-ending disease. So anything we can do to promote people to be safer and healthier in our society, essentially, why wouldn’t we?”
As it stands, few doctors can prescribe PrEP. Krause wants to see that change, along with increased drug education and promoted access.
People in the medical field are praising the coverage announcement and what it can do for public health.
“This is real progress for people in preventing a very destructive disease, a very transmissible disease, that will reduce costs and save lives,” said David Swann, an MLA and former doctor.
“This is clearly a public health, harm-reduction prevention program that is very much needed across the country,” he added.
HIV Edmonton has been hoping for the approval of PrEP for some time. Laura Keegan, the group’s director of public engagement said they were “thrilled” by the news, calling it “incredible.”
Still, Keegan warned the drug is not a silver bullet and education will be key in the distribution of it.
“People have the challenge of talking about HIV. It’s different than if we had a prevention for diabetes or heart disease.
“People are OK talking about maybe losing weight or changing their sodium intake but people, even physicians, have a harder time talking about sexual behaviours and what’s putting people at potential exposure.
“We have a lot of work to do in that currently there are few physicians, certainly in Edmonton… that are knowledgeable and are willing to follow through with a patient on PrEP.”
Keegan also wants to make sure the drug is accessible to the wider community as a public health tool.
“We know that PrEP needs to be made available and aware to communities beyond the men who have sex with men community… trans women, as well as the African, Caribbean, Black community, the Indigenous community — we want to make sure everyone sees themselves in having this prevention.
WATCH: Help is on the way for those at higher risk of getting HIV. Premier Rachel Notley announced the Alberta government will be offering universal coverage of an expensive, preventative drug that’s considered life-saving. Lauren Pullen reports.
“We don’t want to leave anyone behind through doing PrEP distribution. We need to ensure that all communities see this as a viable prevention and that it’s a way to really take ownership of your own health, the same as birth control, the same as other things,” Keegan said.
“We want to see it as an empowering statement, not a stigmatized drug.”
— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News