Providing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatment to men who have sex with men at high risk of contracting HIV in England would be cost-effective and could prevent 25 percent of cases of infection, according to UCL research.

PrEP treatment is a combination of two anti-HIV drugs (emtricitabine and tenofovir) taken daily or around sexual activity to reduce a person’s risk of HIV infection.

The approach is currently being trialled by the NHS over an initial three-year period in around 10,000 people, with sexual health clinics in London, Brighton, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield amongst the first to start enrolling people in order to assess the full impact of the service.

The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, concluded that although introducing PrEP would incur immediate costs, rolling out the service across England could become cost effective within 40 years of introduction, maybe even sooner if drug costs reduce as patents expire.

According to the researchers, over 80 years savings could reach £1 billion as fewer men would need lifelong HIV treatment.

“There is no doubt about the effectiveness of PrEP. In addition to delivering a substantial health benefit, our work suggests that introduction of PrEP will ultimately lead to a saving in costs, as a result of decreased numbers of men in need of lifelong HIV treatment,” says author Valentina Cambiano, UCL Institute for Global Health.

“As antiretroviral drug patents expire over the next few years, the emergence of generic drugs could result in large cost reductions for PrEP, and these reductions could help to limit the impact of PrEP on NHS budgets, making it cost-effective over a relatively short time,” adds co-author Dr Alison Rodger, UCL Institute for Global Health.

The authors estimate that between 8,400 and 12,200 men aged between 15 and 64 years old would have been eligible to use PrEP in the UK last year.