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Lucas Vasas and Christopher Briggs recently received a health advocacy award for their work lobbying for coverage of preventative HIV medication in Manitoba.

Med students lobby for HIV medication coverage

December 5, 2018 — 

Manitoba is behind most other provinces when it comes to preventing HIV infection, but two U of M students are working to change that.

In October Christopher Briggs and Lucas Vasas, both fourth-year students at the Max Rady College of Medicine, won a health advocacy award for their work toward lobbying Manitoba Pharmacare to join similar programs in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia in covering pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), antiviral medication that can be used to prevent the contraction of HIV for at-risk individuals.

“Most provinces have some public funding, so we thought this was a really good opportunity to use the momentum that’s already building across the country, as well as our skills and privilege as medical students, to lobby for the health of all Manitobans,” said Briggs, a 27-year-old originally from Thompson, Man.

Truvada is the common brand name of the drug, which can be taken daily, but can cost up to $1,000 a month. The drug came off patent this year, so there are generic options that are cheaper, but still too expensive for the average person to afford, said Winnipeg-born Vasas, 24.

Vasas noted that medications for people already living with HIV in Manitoba are covered through the Pharmacare program, but a lot of those drugs have also gone generic, leading to savings for the program.

“The Pharmacare program is saving quite a bit of money, so our project is asking that these funds not be used for something else, but be directed back into HIV prophylaxis with the funding of PrEP medications,” he said.

Briggs added that HIV and the evolution of PrEP drugs is something he and Vasas have been following for a while.

“We have friends across the country, and across the world, that have been affected by HIV. It’s something we can’t help but be informed by,” Briggs said.

Briggs and Vasas are in the process of finalizing their project to submit to the province.

The award was established last year as part of a population health program for medical students to learn CanMEDS roles, which were developed by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada to focus on a physician’s required responsibilities, which include being a health advocate.

Through the program, students learn about government policies and how to speak to the media, which Briggs said they found helpful.

“As medical students most of our training is focused on being content experts and being able to critically appraise evidence and journals, and how all of this fits into medicine. But what we really lack, and what this series was really great at teaching us, was how to talk to the press and how to advocate for populations,” he said.

Dr. Adrienne Morrow, co-director of the Population Health course for medical students, and one of three judges for the award, said the winning students were awarded $1,000 from the community health sciences department in the Max Rady College of Medicine. She noted that to be considered for the award students needed to submit a letter and briefing note, modes of communication that are commonly used in government.

“Advocacy can take a long time, it can take many years sometimes, so this is just a way to acknowledge and encourage students who’ve done a really great job,” Morrow said.

The pair, who are set to graduate in the spring, plan to continue their work with sexual and LGBTQ health as they move forward in their careers. Briggs plans to pursue a residency in public health and preventive medicine, while Vasas is applying to obstetrics and gynecology.

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