Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers will host a week of free events highlighting the importance and impact of PrEP next week.
Philadelphia FIGHT is a comprehensive health services organization providing primary care, consumer education, research and advocacy for people living with HIV/AIDS and those at high risk. FIGHT’s goal is to end the AIDS epidemic within the lifetime of those currently living with HIV.
Running July 15-20, PrEP Week commemorates the date, July 16, 2012 — when the FDA approved Truvada for PrEP to reduce the risk of sexually acquired HIV infection. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), if taken daily, can reduce the risk of HIV infection by more than 95 percent.
According to the CDC, at the end of 2016, an estimated 1.1 million people aged 13 and older had HIV infection in the U.S., including an estimated 162,500 whose infections had not been diagnosed.
Gilead, manufacturer of Truvada and sponsor of PrEP Week, says at least 300,000 people globally have taken PrEP, with more than half of those living in the U.S. As PGN reported in May, a landmark study found that men whose HIV infection was fully suppressed by anti-retroviral drugs had no chance of infecting their partner.
The study, published in the medical journal, “The Lancet,” considered transmission rates from 1,000 male couples in Europe where one of the partners was HIV negative and the other was HIV positive and receiving treatment to suppress the virus. The study, led by Dr. Alison Rodger (University College London Institute for Global Health), found no cases where HIV was transmitted to the HIV-negative partner during unprotected sex.
Jermel Wallace, Director of Community Prevention, Navigation and PrEP Services at Philadelphia FIGHT, told PGN that PrEP Week is to showcase PrEP for communities at risk from HIV as well as for clinicians who haven’t yet begun prescribing PrEP to their patients. Wallace said, “The importance of PrEP is ground breaking in reducing the community viral load.”
Mazzoni Center’s Dr. Marcus Sandling explained that since people tend to choose their romantic and sexual partners from their own group, people are more likely to transmit HIV within those groups. This is what Wallace means when he says PrEP can reduce the community’s viral load.
Wallace hopes that people will “look at PrEP for those who can be exposed to HIV” and see that it is “the most viable option” available today in HIV prevention.
Wallace stressed that there are “misconceptions about PrEP and what it does and who are the people who should get it,” adding it will be good for “members of the medical community who still might not be on board with PrEP or who are on the fence about it.”
Wallace explained that some clinicians are still unsure about the use of PrEP because they “really question the effectiveness of it or they cite possible resistance to it — not understanding that the research speaks for itself.”
Greg Herren, who has been an HIV counselor and educator since 2005, said, “For someone my age, the success of PrEP in reducing infections is almost mind-boggling. I just wish we’d had it sooner — when I think about the people we lost, it’s a little bittersweet.”
Herren added, “But I’m very glad younger — and older — men have this additional option to stay safe now.”
Philadelphia FIGHT will be profiling numerous doctors and HIV educators, as well as well-known HIV activist Damon Jacobs during PrEP week. There will be breakfasts with clinicians and members of the community and a special workshop at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine for delivering PrEP to cis women. A Healthy Sexual Mixer on July 18 is scheduled at Tabu Lounge and the Colours Organization will present Legendary Thursdays Kiki Balls, also on July 18. At the Mazzoni Center on July 20, “PrEP Talk with Tatyana” will focus on communities of color. And there will be testing and PrEP discussion for several hours at sites all over the Philadelphia, from Center City to North Philly to Kensington.
“No one else in the country is doing this,” Wallace said, noting that organizations from other cities have been asking about the program. “This is our first iteration,” said Wallace. Next year he said Philadelphia FIGHT hopes to “create an annual event and take it around the country.”
Wallace, who has done HIV-related work since 1996, said he has had periods of survivor’s guilt over the years at being HIV-negative. Like Herren, he notes how many members of the community have been lost to HIV/AIDS. But the onset of PrEP use has made him hopeful for a future without any more such deaths.
“No one in 2019 should be dying from HIV/AIDS,” Wallace asserted. “We have the resources now to stop that from happening.” PrEP is one of those resources. Philadelphia FIGHT is determined to introduce it to Philadelphia and beyond.
A full schedule of PrEP Week events, times and places is available at fight.org/prep-week-calendar.