Preventing is better than curing. This is definitely the case for the STD called HIV, known to cause AIDS. Mart van Dijk investigates PrEP, a new medicine that should prevent HIV.
In many countries, men having sexual intercourse with other men are at a much higher risk of contracting HIV than other people. That being the case, PrEP is very interesting to them. The medicine costs around €50 per month. However, in Hong Kong it is a lot more expensive, around €600 per month. People often buy it through unofficial channels, or even in another country, such as Thailand. This is not without risks. People might not be using PrEP properly this way. They do not know enough about the side effects, for example on their kidneys.
‘Because people in Hong Kong often purchase the medicine through unofficial channels, it’s important to gain insight into their behaviour and knowledge about PrEP. Does PrEP change their sexual behaviour? How do they calculate their risks on HIV and other STDs? Do people get frequent HIV tests? Do they know about the side effects? Do they check their kidneys while using PrEP?’ Mart explains. He is a PhD student at Maastricht University’s Work and Social Psychology department and researches PrEP in the Netherlands as well.
Working in Hong Kong
Mart performed research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in September and October 2018 to get a better (international) understanding of PrEP. He has held interviews with men using PrEP, for example. ‘The research was made possible by the WUN Research Mobility Program through University Fund Limburg. I loved living and working in Hong Kong! I would have loved to stay longer. This WUN-project also took me to Bangkok, to give a workshop at Mahidol University.’
A stronger bond
‘Two months is a relatively short period to run a complete research project, so we’re going to continue to collect data even now I’m back in the Netherlands. The collaboration between CUHK and UM is good. There are other joint research projects next to this one. I expect CUHK colleagues to visit us (again) in the future. My WUN-project has even strengthened the bonds between the two universities, however.’
The first results
What about any first results? ‘A careful first analysis shows there appear to be two groups of PrEP users. One group consists of well-informed men, who know exactly how to use PrEP. The other group consists of men who use the medicine occasionally, but know less about the side effects, and thus do not get these checked out. Proper guidance about the medicine’s use is of vital importance to these people. This is difficult when they purchase the medicine in a different country. Easy access to PrEP and healthcare is important, as well as corresponding with the users’ wishes and needs. PrEP’s situation in Hong Kong is not unique, however, but comparable to the Netherlands and a number of other European and Asian countries. That makes this research and its results even more relevant and important!’