The Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) has begun work on a health technology assessment to prevent HIV in Ireland.
A Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) programme is for people at substantial risk of contracting HIV and is a form of prevention whereby medications are taken by people who do not have HIV to protect them from infection.
The aim of the assessment, which was requested by the Government, is to establish the clinical and cost-effectiveness of providing a PrEP programme in Ireland.
There were 508 new HIV notifications in Ireland in 2016, with preliminary data for 2017 indicating a similar rate.
Overall, it is estimated that the total number of people living here with HIV is approximately 7,200.
11 countries currently fund PrEP through national programmes and in 2015, France became the first European country to reimburse PrEP through its public health system.
A number of other EU countries have subsequently announced that they would fund a programme, including Belgium, Norway and Scotland, and many others are in the process of implementing national programmes.
HIQA’s Director of Health Technology Assessment and Deputy Chief Executive, Dr Máirín Ryan, said: “HIV infection remains a significant public health concern.
"In 2017, over 500 new HIV infections were reported to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) in Ireland. In fact, the years 2016 and 2017 witnessed the highest number of new HIV notifications ever reported to the HPSC.
"Approximately half of all new notifications were in males who have sex with males. Since 2006, there has been a threefold increase in new infections in the MSM community.
"In addition to providing PrEP free of charge, such a programme would also monitor patients through regular testing and provide counselling and advice. The assessment will also look at the budget impact of introducing a PrEP programme and assess the organisational and resource implications of such a service,” she said.
Minister for Health Simon Harris welcomed HIQA's work on the introduction of a PrEP programme and said he looks forward to advancing policy on this issue when work is completed by next year.
"We know that enormous progress has been made in the treatment of people living with HIV," he said.
"However, we are also acutely aware of the significant numbers of people in Ireland being diagnosed.
Prevention is absolutely essential and as Minister for Health I am keen to make PrEP, which is a prevention tool, more readily available to those at risk of HIV in Ireland.
HIQA said it will establish an expert advisory group comprising representatives from key stakeholder groups who will advise the HTA evaluation team during the course of this assessment.