A new report on the HIV prevention drug PrEP has found that it is safe and highly effective for people at substantial risk of contracting the virus.

The report has estimated that 173 HIV infections could be averted over the course of the first five years of a programme, costing €1.5m in the first year.

The Government is to introduce a PrEP programme this year and will follow the formal advice from the Health Information and Quality Authority after the public consultation.

The draft HIQA assessment report has been published to coincide with its public consultation on the possible introduction of a PrEP programme to prevent HIV.

PrEP is the most recent development in the field of HIV prevention, involving the pre-emptive use of oral antiretroviral therapy in HIV negative people to prevent infection.

Dr Máirín Ryan, HIQA's Director of Health Technology Assessment and Deputy Chief Executive, said that implementing a PrEP programme would be considered cost-saving compared with standard care.

The report estimates that more than 1,700 people would join a potential PrEP programme in year one.

The incremental budget impact would be €1.5m in the first year and €5.4m over five years.

Most of the costs would be for the drug, but significant investment in sexually transmitted infection services would also be required.

Dr Ryan said the effectiveness of PrEP is strongly linked with taking the medication correctly, and PrEP must not be taken by individuals with an unrecognised HIV infection as drug resistance mutations may develop.

She said that people taking part in a PrEP programme should receive advice on taking the medication appropriately and undergo frequent HIV testing.

HIQA wants to hear the views of the public on the draft report before it is finalised and it advises the Minister for Health.

The cost of PrEP is not currently funded by the State. Individuals with a valid prescription for must pay for it themselves.

Will St Leger, a member of the HIV campaign group, ACT Up, said he had been using PrEP since November 2017.

He said that it provided an added extra protection from HIV and taken correctly, it offered almost 100% protection.

He said there was significant awareness about PrEP however there was still a barrier to access due to the fact that it was available via prescription and could cost between €50 and €90.

He said Act Up was pleased that the report showed it to be safe and effective and that a programme would deliver cost savings to the public.

But he said there also needed to be Government investment in sexual health services to support the provision of PrEP.

Meanwhile, HIV Ireland has urged the Government to proceed quickly with the first PrEP programme once the public consultation process on today's report is completed in May.

Niall Mulligan, Executive Director, for the organisation said that a fully funded programme was a crucial intervention to reverse the upward trend in new HIV diagnoses.

Minister for Health, Simon Harris said the publication of the HIQA draft report was a significant step in the introduction of a PrEP programme in Ireland in 2019.

He said he looked forward to receiving HIQA's formal advice when the report is finalised after the consultation process.

PrEP is available in at least 49 countries worldwide, with 11 countries providing PrEP through national programmes.

European countries with national programmes in place include Belgium, France, Norway, Portugal and Scotland.

There were 492 diagnoses of HIV notified in Ireland in 2017.