In Conversation with Dr. Sonali Kochhar: PrEP in India

Published: July 29, 2011

Dr. Sonali Kochhar, medical director India of OneWorld Health and one of the two Indian women chosen for the prestigious 2011 Yale World Fellows leadership initiative, provides a thoughtful discussion on PrEP within the Indian context.

MP: Could you please briefly introduce yourself, and tell us how you got involved in the field of HIV prevention?
SK: I was the Medical Director, India for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative for seven years and was involved in the preparation and conduct of the first ever AIDS vaccine trials conducted in India.

I got involved in the field of HIV prevention because early on in my medical training, I saw firsthand how diseases like HIV not only severely impacted the person infected but also their whole families. The severe stigma and discrimination associated with the disease in developing countries like India only worsens the issues. Seeing women being disowned by their families and children thrown out of schools and shunned by society convinced me that it is imperative that safe, effective and accessible preventive options are found at the earliest to prevent these tragedies. History has shown that vaccines are often the most powerful and cost-effective disease prevention tools available. It is hoped that a preventive AIDS vaccine will stem the global HIV pandemic.  

MP: What are your thoughts on PrEP, particularly within the Indian context?
SK: There is mounting evidence that pre-exposure prophylaxis might prove to be an important new prevention approach. The results of from the iPrEx trial were promising in showing that in MSM and transgendered women who have sex with men, daily TDF/FTC (tenofovir disoproxyl fumarate plus emtricitabine, Truvada) reduced the risk of HIV by 44 percent.
If proven safe and effective in all populations[1], PrEP could help address the urgent need for a female-controlled prevention method for women who are often unable, because of cultural and financial barriers, to negotiate condom use.

It could be used by men and women at risk due to sexual or drug-using behaviors, when combined with prevention measures like reducing the number of sexual partners, HIV counseling and testing, condom use, use of sterile syringes etc.
MP: What are the particular pros and cons, challenges, or issues of rolling out PrEP here? Do you think it should be made accessible to everyone?
SK: There are numerous questions about the implementation of PrEP outside of the research setting especially in the context of countries like India with problems like the lack of a strong evidence base on which to formulate decision making, an unregulated health sector and a highly vulnerable population often severely disadvantaged in terms of income, education, power structures and gender.

These include whether the intermittent use of the drugs will be effective, how the cost will be borne and how would the health and safety of PrEP users be monitored. The impact of PrEP may be strongly diminished or even reversed by behavioral disinhibition (increased risky sexual behavior because people may feel protected against HIV infection), especially in scenarios with low coverage and low effectiveness. PrEP would need to be used with other preventive modalities but it is not certain how this can best be done.

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