PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a four-week course of anti-HIV treatment drugs you can take if you think you may have just exposed yourself to HIV through unprotected sex or by sharing injecting drug equipment.
PEP can, in most cases, stop HIV from establishing itself in the body and prevent you from becoming HIV-positive if the PEP treatment is begun within 72 hours of exposure to HIV and taken correctly over the next 28 days.
PEP is a combination of two, or sometimes three, of the anti-HIV treatment drugs that HIV-positive people take daily to minimise the virus's ability to multiply in their body.
PEP is NOT a morning after pill that makes it easy and safe to have unprotected sex. You have to take two or three drugs every day for 28 days for it to work and these often cause very unpleasant side effects
such as nausea and headaches (see 'Side effects' below).
PEP can be effective if begun up to 72 hours after exposure to HIV, but the sooner treatment begins after exposure to HIV the more likely it is to work.
Once you are exposed to HIV it takes less than a week for the virus to establish itself within your body. Once it is established you will have HIV for the rest of your life. However, if you begin taking PEP in time, the anti-HIV treatment drugs prevent the HIV that is already in your body from
reproducing and it dies out before it has a chance to multiply.
The anti-HIV treatment drugs used in PEP must be taken every day for 28 days and they are extremely powerful and often have side effects. These side effects can include: diarrhoea; lethargy and tiredness; vomiting; and, migraine-like headaches. Some of these side effects can be treated with other medications to reduce their effect on your body, but it is important to continue taking the PEP treatment drugs for all 28 days of treatment to maximise the likelihood of them working.
In Melbourne, the fastest and easiest way to get PEP is to go to the Accident and Emergency Department at the Alfred Hospital, Commercial Rd, Prahran. You can call them for information on (03) 9276 2600. PEP is also available through a number of gay-friendly clinics including the Centre Clinics (St Kilda, Northcote), the Carlton Clinic, and the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre. See the PEP website www.getpep.info for contact details. In NSW, call 1 800 PEP NOW.
Because of the unpleasant side effects of the drugs used in PEP, the medical staff you talk to when you ask for PEP will try to find out how likely it is that you have actually been infected with HIV before starting the treatment. To do this they will need to ask you some personal questions about what happened that made you think you were exposed to HIV. This will include what sort of sexual or injecting activity you have been involved in and whether or not your sexual/injecting partner is likely to be HIV-positive. They are not being nosey or judgemental; they just need this information to assess the risk!
It is important to be honest with them so they can make an informed assessment of your risk.
In Victoria you can access more information about PEP by visiting the PEP website (www.getpep.info) or by calling the PEP Hotline on 1800 889 887. This service is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by trained health professionals, who can answer all your questions, including the closest place to you to access PEP.