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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2017 > Getting pills into bodies

Getting pills into bodies

A new account of the early days of Aids shows how cleverly activists influenced the powerful, says Elizabeth Pisani

How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed Aids by David France (Picador, £25)

“It’s time gay guys just grew up!”

This jarring comment came recently from a youngish gay friend, a former Aids activist and sex worker. We were talking about whether the NHS should pay for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which involves people who don’t have HIV taking small doses of treatment to avoid infection. Several large trials have shown that PrEP works very well when it is used consistently, just as condoms and abstinence work very well when they are used consistently. My friend (who works for the NHS) has no clinical or moral issues with PrEP; he just doesn’t think the NHS should buy it for people who could pay for it themselves. If men could buy recreational drugs before having unprotected sex, he reasoned, they could also buy the HIV treatment pill Truvada that works as a preventative.

My friend’s opinion was jarring not because it was wrong, necessarily, but because it sounded nannyish about sex, and that’s desperately unfashionable, especially within the gay community. According to David France, whose new book How to Survive a Plague chronicles the early years of the Aids epidemic in New York, that’s been true for at least three decades.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February issue: Tom Clark and Luke Harding examine the attacks facing democracy. Clark reviews two books on democracy and suggests a new intellectual assault may be on the horizon. Harding looks at Russia’s attempts to derail the democratic process by focussing on its technical frailty. Melissa Deckman asks why women voted for Trump, while Duncan Bell charts the story of the Anglosphere and suggests Brexiteers are indulging in an old fantasy. Also in this issue: Matthew Harries asks if it’s time to ban the nuclear bomb, Adam Mars-Jones looks at the way we perceive aliens in films and Elizabeth Pisani explores the role of activists in changing the perception of Aids and its pushing for treatment.