Photo credit PrEP4Love.com
The fight against HIV/AIDS advanced tremendously over the last 30 years. Treatments can decrease viral loads to undetectable levels, improving the health of people living with HIV and lowering the chances of transmitting HIV to others. But, with over 40,000 new HIV infections annually in the United States there is more to be done. Additionally, people of color, trans women, and men who are gay or bisexual continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV. In response, the National HIV/AIDS Strategy increasingly promotes HIV prevention efforts.
PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a new approach to HIV prevention. PrEP treatment means that someone who is HIV-negative can take a daily pill to reduce their risk of becoming infected with HIV. PrEP does not protect against other sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy. It is intended to be used in combination with other safer sex measures, including condoms. Truvada is the medication currently approved for PrEP treatment by the FDA. The medication must be taken for at least seven days to reach sufficient levels for protection against HIV. PrEP is recommended for anybody at high risk of HIV infection. Primarily, this includes men or transgender women who have sex with men, people who are HIV-negative but have a partner who is HIV-positive, and people who inject drugs.
Research shows people who use PrEP experience a reduction in their risk of HIV infection. Transmission of HIV has been demonstrated to drop by over 90% among people who take PrEP consistently. As explained on the website PrepFacts.org, “If you don’t take PrEP consistently it can’t protect you from HIV, but if you do take it regularly it can offer strong protection.” PrEP is sometimes confused with PEP. PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis and can reduce someone’s risk of becoming infected with HIV after they’ve come into contact with it. To be effective, PEP treatment must begin within 72 hours of exposure to HIV and last for a month.
It’s important for housing first providers to be informed about PrEP and PEP and to share information about these treatments with their participants. Housing first providers work with people in marginalized communities who are at a heightened risk of HIV exposure. In addition to the groups previously mentioned, HIV is more prevalent among people who are homeless. Although PrEP is highly effective, one in three health care providers haven’t heard about it. So, it’s up to service providers and other helpers in the community to spread the word about this option.
Even if a health care provider is aware of PrEP, they might be too rushed to fully understand what’s going on with their patient or stigmatize their risky choices. The Housing First Model gives service providers the time needed to get to know someone and find out about potential risks they face. If housing first providers are using a harm reduction approach, they are more likely to get honest information about a participant engaging in unprotected sex or injection drug use. That means that they might be aware of a person’s heightened risk for getting HIV and can bring PrEP to someone’s attention, who may not hear about it otherwise.
Sex feels good. It helps satisfy our need for intimacy and connection. People do it despite the risks of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. As with all harm reduction work, staff's goal is to help people strategize how to get the benefits from a behavior without experiencing the consequences. Creativity is a necessity when service providers are collaboratively building a menu of options to reduce harm in their participants’ lives. But, that creativity can be stifled when staff try to talk about sex and participants respond by saying that they will never use condoms or that they are HIV-positive and sexually active. Don’t be deterred! Just because a person isn’t willing to do something in the safest way possible, doesn’t mean that they won’t consider other strategies that may help. Instead of using fear to motivate decision making, the focus should be on education, options, and empowerment. These values are reflected in many of the public health campaigns promoting PrEP which are more focused on being sexy than scary. Getting comfortable talking about risky sexual behaviors and the pleasure people get from their sex lives positions case managers to introduce options like PrEP to their participants in an appealing way.
Here are some additional resources for learning about PrEP. Check out this website for information on where to find PrEP in your area. PrEP is covered by most insurance providers and Medicaid. For more details about how to get PrEP, including links to available payment assistance programs, go to prep4love.com created by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Prepfacts.org was created by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and includes a detailed list of frequently asked questions. The Well Project focuses on women’s health to address HIV/AIDS and presents a balanced overview of PrEP in the article “PrEP for Women”. On September 23rd the Midwest Harm Reduction Institute will be hosting a presentation on PrEP at the annual Harm Reduction in the House Conference in Chicago. Consider attending the conference or following the hashtag #HousingisHR to keep up with the conference.