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The FDA has approved a new drug in the fight against AIDS


The Food and Drug Administration has approved a new drug in the fight against AIDS. It's the first injectable medication for HIV prevention. NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien reports the drug is highly effective at stopping the spread of HIV and is being hailed as a powerful new tool.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: HIV/AIDS has gotten pushed out of the headlines recently. And while the annual number of new HIV infections has declined in recent years, the disease is still a significant health problem both at home and abroad. In the United States, tens of thousands of new cases are detected each year. And it remains the leading cause of death in parts of southern Africa.

KENNETH MAYER: This new medication, cabotegravir, is a game changer.

BEAUBIEN: That's Kenneth Mayer, the medical research director at Fenway Health in Boston, which is one of the sites where injectable cabotegravir was tested in clinical trials.

MAYER: This is an injection that people can take every eight weeks and be protected against HIV.

BEAUBIEN: Cabotegravir is the first injectable form of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, a treatment also known as PrEP. Up until now, PrEP was available only in an oral form in which pills had to be taken every day. In clinical trials, cabotegravir proved to be 69% more effective than oral PrEP in preventing HIV among men who have sex with men. And it was 90% more effective than conventional PrEP among heterosexual women. The approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the first for cabotegravir globally. Although, it's under review in several other nations. Mayer at Fenway Health says for people who showed up every two months during the clinical trials for their shots, cabotegravir proved incredibly effective.

MAYER: They were very much protected, you know, over 99% protection. There were a few people who didn't like the injections and stopped them after a while. So it's not going to be a panacea for everyone.

BEAUBIEN: As the overall number of HIV cases has dipped in the United States, transmission now is often among people who are socially marginalized and harder to reach. For whatever reason, other prevention methods clearly haven't been working for some people. And Mayer says the more tools that are available to stop new HIV infections, the better. And while cabotegravir injections every two months looks like it could be a game changer, there are other prevention drugs under development that may have to be taken only once every six months.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "LOW DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.