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PrEP Clinics: A new weapon in the fight against HIV

PREP-CLINICSPrEP Clinics: A new weapon in the fight against HIV

Neena Smith-Bankhead, M.S., Chief Research Of-ficer, R.E.D Institute, AID Atlanta, Inc.

No tool should be left unused in the fight against HIV.

However, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a prevention method in which those who are not HIV positive take a daily dose of the pill Truvada to ward off infection, has not received the widespread attention that many HIV/AIDS advocates would like, and awareness of it in the Black community is alarmingly low.

But a number of agencies and organizations across the country are hoping to change that by opening PrEP clinics—specialized programs to help those at risk for HIV take advantage of all the options available to them.

Biomedical interventions such as PrEP can play a major role in helping to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In fact, studies have shown that when PrEP is taken consistently, it can reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 92 percent.

However, beginning a PrEP regimen requires a great deal of support and commitment. If the medication is not taken consistently, it is not as effective. Those who take PrEP must commit to doing so every day and following up with a health-care provider every three months.

In May 2014 the U.S. Public Health Service unveiled the first set of clinical-practice guidelines for PrEP. They high-light the importance of counseling when people are taking PrEP, as well as of regular monitoring to make sure that PrEP is being taken consistently. Follow-up care is also needed to track one’s HIV status and any side effects that could arise from taking the medication.

PrEP clinics are providing a practical way to ensure that these guidelines are met.

Introducing the Black Community to PrEP

While there is clearly a benefit to taking PrEP, many people at risk of HIV are unaware that it is even a viable option. According to a September 2014 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 55 percent of gay and bisexual men knew nothing at all about PrEP. Another 25 percent knew only a little about it.

Such findings are particularly troublesome in the Black community because young Black MSMs account for the highest number of new HIV infections. That means PrEP clinics can play a crucial role in educating the Black community about PrEP.

It’s one of the goals of AIDS service organization AID Atlanta, which recently opened a PrEP clinic with funding from pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc. “We want to make sure that people with the highest risk of HIV have multiple options,” says Neena Smith-Bankhead, chief research officer for AID Atlanta’s Research, Education and Development Institute program. “If you walk in and you want PrEP, we’re going to help you figure out how to get it.”

In recent months, Smith-Bankhead has seen more interest from community members about PrEP. Thanks to the clinic, anyone who comes to AID Atlanta with an interest in PrEP will be educated about how it works and will learn the importance of taking the medication consistently. Many insurers will cover the cost of the medication. If an insurer refuses to pay, AID Atlanta will help the person file an appeal, Smith-Bankhead says. Those who don’t have insurance may also qualify to receive the medication through Gilead’s patient-assistance programs. Once one of AID Atlanta’s clients’ starts taking PrEP, the organization will continue to offer support by connecting the patient to medical and prevention specialists for follow-up visits.

A Nationwide Call for PrEP

Not only can PrEP clinics help prevent new HIV infections, but they can also provide other bene-fits. For some people, a PrEP clinic might be their only re-gular contact with a medical professional. Follow-up visits with medical professionals can also identify other conditions such as other STDs and high blood pressure.

Late last year the AIDS United Public Policy Committee (AIDS United), a national coalition of community-based HIV/AIDS organizations, called for a nationwide scale-up in the use of PrEP. “We view PrEP as an important tool in meeting the goal of reducing rates of infection as outlined by the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy,” said Ronald Johnson, vice president of policy and advocacy at AIDS United, in a statement.

“It’s time for PrEP to take its place among our other proven prevention methods. We’ll continue to work to increase access to PrEP in addition to all other comprehensive HIV prevention strategies.”

PrEP Watch, an education initiative of the New York-based AVAC (founded as the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition), maintains a list of PrEP clinics across the country. Hopefully it will continue to grow.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.

Neena Smith-Bankhead, M.S., Chief Research Officer, R.E.D Institute, AID Atlanta, Inc.

No tool should be left unused in the fight against HIV.

However, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a prevention method in which those who are not HIV positive take a daily dose of the pill Truvada to ward off infection, has not received the widespread attention that many HIV/AIDS advocates would like, and awareness of it in the Black community is alarmingly low.

But a number of agencies and organizations across the country are hoping to change that by opening PrEP clinics—specialized programs to help those at risk for HIV take advantage of all the options available to them.

Biomedical interventions such as PrEP can play a major role in helping to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In fact, studies have shown that when PrEP is taken consistently, it can reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 92 percent.

However, beginning a PrEP regimen requires a great deal of support and commitment. If the medication is not taken consistently, it is not as effective. Those who take PrEP must commit to doing so every day and following up with a healthcare provider every three months.

In May 2014 the U.S. Public Health Service unveiled the first set of clinical-practice guidelines for PrEP. They highlight the importance of counseling when people are taking PrEP, as well as of regular monitoring to make sure that PrEP is being taken consistently. Follow-up care is also needed to track one’s HIV status and any side effects that could arise from taking the medication.

PrEP clinics are providing a practical way to ensure that these guidelines are met.

Introducing the Black Community to PrEP

While there is clearly a benefit to taking PrEP, many people at risk of HIV are unaware that it is even a viable option. According to a September 2014 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 55 percent of gay and bisexual men knew nothing at all about PrEP. Another 25 percent knew only a little about it.

Such findings are particularly troublesome in the Black community because young Black MSMs account for the highest number of new HIV infections. That means PrEP clinics can play a crucial role in educating the Black community about PrEP.

It’s one of the goals of AIDS service organization AID Atlanta, which recently opened a PrEP clinic with funding from pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc. “We want to make sure that people with the highest risk of HIV have multiple options,” says Neena Smith-Bankhead, chief research officer for AID Atlanta’s Research, Education and Development Institute program. “If you walk in and you want PrEP, we’re going to help you figure out how to get it.”

In recent months, Smith-Bankhead has seen more interest from community members about PrEP. Thanks to the clinic, anyone who comes to AID Atlanta with an interest in PrEP will be educated about how it works and will learn the importance of taking the medication consistently. Many insurers will cover the cost of the medication. If an insurer refuses to pay, AID Atlanta will help the person file an appeal, Smith-Bankhead says. Those who don’t have insurance may also qualify to receive the medication through Gilead’s patient-assistance programs. Once one of AID Atlanta’s clients’ starts taking PrEP, the organization will continue to offer support by connecting the patient to medical and prevention specialists for follow-up visits.

A Nationwide Call for PrEP

Not only can PrEP clinics help prevent new HIV infections, but they can also provide other benefits. For some people, a PrEP clinic might be their only regular contact with a medical professional. Follow-up visits with medical professionals can also identify other conditions such as other STDs and high blood pressure.

Late last year the AIDS United Public Policy Committee (AIDS United), a national coalition of community-based HIV/AIDS organizations, called for a nationwide scale-up in the use of PrEP. “We view PrEP as an important tool in meeting the goal of reducing rates of infection as outlined by the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy,” said Ronald Johnson, vice president of policy and advocacy at AIDS United, in a statement. “It’s time for PrEP to take its place among our other proven prevention methods. We’ll continue to work to increase access to PrEP in addition to all other comprehensive HIV prevention strategies.”

PrEP Watch, an education initiative of the New York-based AVAC (founded as the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition), maintains a list of PrEP clinics across the country. Hopefully it will continue to grow.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.

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