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PrEP campaign aims to block HIV infection and save lives in DC

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- A big part of the District of Columbia's plan to get its HIV rate down is to get more uninfected people on PrEP, a two-medicine combination pill that's sold under the brand name Truvada.

When taken daily by people who are at high risk for contracting HIV via sex or shared needles with someone who is infected, this pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, can cut the risk of HIV infection by 92 percent, studies show.

PrEP has been around for years now, but only a small portion of those at high risk for HIV infection use it, partly because many still don't know it exists. The medicine is also quite expensive, priced at $1,600 for a month's supply. It is usually covered by insurance, including Medicaid.

To cut the rate of new infections in half by 2020, D.C. health officials estimate the city will need to more than quadruple the number of residents who are on PrEP. The department of health and community groups are pulling out all the stops to raise awareness.

"Thinking about sex? Then think about PrEP," one public health commercial says, over video clips of a woman sensually licking an ice cream cone, or a man stroking a golf club.

There are also social media pushes, and an ad campaign called "PrEP for Her" targeting African-American women, who, along with gay and bisexual African-American men, are at high risk of infection in the district.

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At a recent conference in the city on LGBTQ issues, Sarah Fleming stopped by the PrEP information table put together by Luis Felipe Cebas of Whitman-Walker Health, a community health center that focuses on providing care to LGBTQ patients.

Fleming told Cebas she's surprised she had never heard of PrEP. She even got tested for HIV recently.

"They told me nothing about this," she said. "I was negative -- but, I feel like, it's a preventative, so you should tell people about it."

Gregorio Millett, vice president and director of public policy at the Foundation for AIDS Research, said some health care providers don't mention PrEP because of their mistaken belief that it would increase risky sexual behavior; research hasn't shown that to be the case.

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