I caught up with Michael Haack, from Canada’s Community-Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health, to talk about the impact of PrEP for gay men in Canada.
What are some of the biggest health challenges that gay men in Canada are currently facing?
HIV and sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhoea, syphilis, and HPV continue to affect gay men and other men who have sex with men in Canada at significantly higher rates compared to other populations. Gay men are 131 times more likely than other men in Canada to become infected with HIV.
Beyond sexual health, mental health — anxiety, depression, suicide — and substance use — alcohol, smoking, crystal meth — remain important health issues for many gay men in Canada, and often intersect with HIV and STI vulnerability. Despite significant social progress of LGBTQ communities in Canada, experiences of discrimination and harassment are commonly reported by gay men and other MSM in population health surveys.
How do gay men access PrEP in Canada?
It depends primarily on where you live, and in many cases, whether you have private health insurance. In Canada, healthcare is delivered by provinces, not the federal government, meaning each province has different systems for access. In British Columbia, and most recently in Saskatchewan, PrEP is fully covered by the provincial government for those at risk. In BC, PrEP is provided through a centralized HIV drug program which also covers HIV treatment and care. First Nations and Inuit people across Canada are also able to access PrEP through the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program.
In other provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, PrEP is covered through public pharmacare programs for those who are enrolled — mostly low-income, seniors, or people with disabilities. While this can help some with accessing PrEP, the deductibles can be prohibitive depending on your income, not to mention the significant time and energy required to enrol in these programs. For this reason, private health insurance remains an important mechanism for access for many gay men. Unfortunately, this leaves too many gay men without satisfactory options for PrEP access due to not having private drug coverage or being enrolled in public programs due to the high costs.
Other provinces such as Alberta and Nova Scotia are engaging in ongoing consultations with community and expert stakeholders to determine their province’s plan for PrEP access — for example, full coverage as in BC, or coverage via public, income-tested health insurance programs such as ON or QC. Another option that’s available to Canadians living by the US border is overseas drug importation through an online pharmacy via the US. Canada doesn’t permit direct mailing of drugs or medicines into Canada, but Canadians are allowed to bring up to a three-month supply of medications through the border. This offers a cheaper method to purchase PrEP outright, for approximately $50CAD per month compared to $200–250 CAD. But you have to live near the US border or be willing to drive great distances.
Is the availability of PrEP helping to reduce the rates of HIV transmission in Canada?
We don’t have enough data to answer that question definitively, at least not yet. Access to PrEP has improved significantly over the past 1–2 years, and we expect that current studies which are monitoring PrEP in Canada will report similar reductions in HIV incidence as seen in other jurisdictions which have scaled-up PrEP, such as London, UK, or San Francisco.
Do you encourage event-based or on-demand dosing for PrEP users?
Officially, no. Most Canadian protocols are based on daily use of PrEP, not on-demand. However, many front-line organisations and doctors are educating their patients about on-demand.
Does PrEP mean that the battle against HIV has been won?
No. We’re still in the early stages of getting PrEP more accessible and into the hands of those that need it. Much of the attention has been placed on first making PrEP more available and accessible — much work remains still in terms of ensuring there are effective and sustainable PrEP delivery models to get PrEP into the hands that need it the most.
Research shows that access to PrEP, and health care services more generally, is uneven, due to service barriers like stigma and cultural insensitivity often faced by people of colour, people living in non-urban settings, and other marginalised populations. While we remain confident that improved access and accessibility of PrEP will reduce HIV infections, we still have much more work to ensure our systems are equitable and effective, including emphasis on reaching the un-diagnosed.
Have the safer sex messages regarding condoms become superfluous?
No. Condoms have and continue to hold an important place in our safer sex toolkit. PrEP isn’t for everyone, and doesn’t protect against STIs like gonorrhoea and syphilis which remain prevalent infections among gay men in most urban networks. It’s also important to remember that not everyone can access PrEP — several provinces, including Canada’s most populous province Ontario, have gaps that make accessing PrEP challenging.
What the likelihood that the HIV virus will mutate or develop a resistance to PrEP?
Based on the current evidence, for which there have only been two reported cases globally of PrEP failure due to drug resistant HIV, we think the risk of acquiring HIV in those cases is exceedingly rare. However, more research on the prevalence of Truvada-resistant strains of HIV is needed.
Are we living in a post-HIV world?
In some ways yes, but in other ways, maybe not. We think it’s important to acknowledge that gay men’s health needs and interests span well beyond HIV, and that’s true for many HIV-positive and HIV-negative gay men. Biomedical advances in HIV treatment and prevention such as U=U and PrEP are markers of progress in our fight against HIV and our ability to manage it into our daily lives. Mental health issues such as body image, anxiety, and substance use are frequently listed as priority topics in community events, sometimes over HIV. Suicide took the lives of more gay and bisexual men in 2015 than HIV.
But despite all the progress with HIV prevention and treatment, we know that the stigma of HIV remains in the lives of both positive and negative men. We continue to learn from communities and populations who face ongoing barriers to accessing basic sexual health services such as HIV and STI testing, much less access to PrEP which remains a pipe-dream to many gay men in Canada depending on where they live and what their financial circumstances may be.
Does the health service in Canada have sufficient resources to meet the needs of gay men?
We believe it does, but much work remains in ensuring that the Canadian health system is appropriately equipped and funded to support the diverse needs of our communities. Even on an issue like HIV — which has taken centre stage in gay men’s health — the availability and accessibility of services, such as testing, let alone PrEP, varies markedly across the country, and often within cities and provinces.
Our attention to HIV has been well-justified, but also comes at the cost of not looking at gay men’s health needs more broadly — research on issues such as HPV and anal cancer among HIV-positive gay men suggest that significantly more resources and funding need to be invested into the health system to appropriate address population need.
We want to hear your opinion
Butt sex for beginners
I caught up with Chris Davis from TAKE TWO to discuss how a dietary supplement can play an important role in anal sex.
What led you to create the TAKE TWO dietary supplement?
We saw an opportunity to deliver the absolute highest quality of dietary fibre blends to a demanding market, while offering a premium alternative with high-end, discreet packaging that really sets us apart from other brands.
My understanding is that there are similar types of fibre supplement products on the market, but I haven’t seen anyone else market them specifically to men as an aid to anal sex. Why did you decide to focus on that market?
Pure for Men is the clear market leader and actually does speak to clean anal sex, however, we’ve found what is considered to be a more effective formula that delivers even better results.
We decided to make a splash in the market after early customer reviews raved about just how much of a difference TAKE TWO made to their digestive health and confidence in the bedroom. We also found that a lot of customers prefer discreet packaging and bottle labels, which matches the high-end look and feel of TAKE TWO.
Is TAKE TWO an alternative to douching or just an additional option to help guys be clean and confident?
We like the idea of have additional tools in the shed for every occasion! TAKE TWO is not meant to completely eliminate the need for general maintenance and hygiene, but we have found that many of our customers spend 70 percent less time ‘getting ready’ while some users have forgone traditional preparation steps, altogether. We’re such strong believers in the above claims that we stand by these promised results with a money-back guarantee.
The edition that you’ve created in partnership with the Tom of Finland Foundation looks great — why was the imagery of Tom of Finland a good fit for TAKE TWO?
It’s no secret that here in the office, we love the rich, leather-bound imagery rooted in Tom of Finland’s unique catalogue of art. It was an obvious match to the leather-like look and feel of our standard TAKE TWO bottle design, and not at all hard to imagine how amazing the Tom of Finland art would look if properly featured on the TAKE TWO product.
We worked closely with the Tom of Finland Foundation to identify some of the most iconic pieces, and coupled them with the jaw-dropping metallic backing on each panel to give that one-of-a-kind finish. After the first bottle was completed, we knew it was a winning bet.
Customers have fallen in love with the result, and we’re already getting daily requests for new favourite pieces of Tom of Finland artwork to be featured next.
How do you market your product?
We rely heavily on word-of-mouth, but have run a few very successful campaigns on social networks and dating apps like Scruff and Hornet. We’ve also partnered with doctors serving the LGBTQ community around the US who see the immense value in supporting fibre-rich diets via TAKE TWO’s premium blend of soluble and insoluble fibres. You’ll likely see TAKE TWO popping up in various radio, television and social media campaigns featuring respected online personalities that have made the switch to better fibre.
I was interested to see in your Q&As that you specifically talk about the product’s capability with PrEP — was that a question that you were receiving from customers or did you just want to proactively address any potential concerns that might be out there?
Although risks are determined to be relatively low when it comes to dietary fibre supplements and medications like PrEP, we wanted to be 100 percent certain that best-practices are being followed to eliminate any doubts.
If I was a young guy, just starting to explore my sexuality, what hints or tips would you give to make anal sex as enjoyable as possible?
- Get to know yourself and your body inside and out. This includes everything from exploring tools like lubricant and practising with safe objects and toys to get a feel for what works for you.
- Be sure you are comfortable with and trust your sexual partners before diving in.
- Remain sex-positive and remember that sex is a long journey — an experience that is meant to be enjoyable.
- Take your time and communicate freely before, during, and after playtime.
- Play safe!
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