Happy World AIDS Day!
24.9% of Lesotho’s population currently is infected with HIV. Think about that for a moment.
It is absolutely mind blowing to look around yourself at a meeting, party, football match, or funeral and think that statistically one-quarter of the people you are looking at have HIV.
Somehow, as I consider this, it does not shock me then that in one of my four years in Lesotho I had a possible HIV exposure.
Within minutes of my potential exposure to HIV, I was desperately trying to control the runaway adrenaline in my body as it caused my legs to twitch while rationally reminding myself through Google and memories from Peace Corps trainings that I still had ways to protect myself from the virus.
As I researched PEP-Post Exposure Prophylaxis, I struggled to contain my panic. Everything I read warned that PEP is difficult and has many side effects. There were many reports noting permanent liver or kidney damage. There were even more highlighting that patients were unable to complete PEP due to side effects and therefore would still end up HIV positive. Reading these reports, I was terrified and furious at the series of events that put me in this position.
PEP is actually one of two options available to prevent HIV infection. PEP typically consists of taking Antiretroviral (ART) medications for 28-30 days, depending on the type of medications taken, after a single incident of possible exposure. The simplest explanation of how it works is that the ART medications prevent HIV replication in the body until all cells that may have been exposed die off.
The alternate option is for people at consistently high-risk exposure to HIV. This is called PrEP or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and consists of ART taken throughout the period of high-risk (e.g. having a long-term sexual partner who is HIV-positive). Scientifically, it works the same way that PEP does, however, the person must continue to take it correctly until a month after exposure risk ends.