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How Penn Medicine is Helping Patients to PrEP and Prevent HIV

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Penn Medicine has long been committed to treating patients living with HIV. While there have been many advancements in the treatment options available for patients, few options were available to prevent people from acquiring HIV.

Until now.

“PrEP is one of our most powerful tools to end the AIDS epidemic in our lifetime. Imagine if, 30 years ago, there was a way to prevent getting HIV? Millions of lives could have been saved. History would have been rewritten,” said Helen Koenig, MD, MPH.

In 2012, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), was approved to prevent HIV acquisition in adults at high risk. In May of 2018, PrEP was also approved for use by adolescents who weigh at least 77 lbs.

PrEP is a medication that can be taken daily by individuals at high risk of acquiring HIV. If you take PrEP and become exposed to HIV, the medication works to block the virus from causing HIV infection in your body.

“This is an exciting time for us to change our approach,” explained Bridget McBride, MPH, HIV Prevention PrEP navigator. “Rather than focusing on changing people’s behaviors to avoid risk, PrEP requires us to address people’s perception of their own risk. It shifts the paradigm from one of fear to one of empowerment.”

PrEP Can Significantly Reduce HIV Risk

If you’re interested in PrEP, your health care provider will screen you to determine if it is appropriate for you. According to Peter Liu, MD, you may qualify if you meet the following criteria:

  • You have a partner who is HIV-positive
  • You have previously tested positive for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as gonorrhea or chlamydia
  • Use of injection drugs
  • You have multiple sexual partners
  • You are having sex with limited or inconsistent condom use

PrEP works by blocking the HIV virus from multiplying. When taken properly, it prevents the virus’ DNA from growing, and blocks HIV from attacking your immune system. When used as prescribed, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90 percent. It can also reduce your HIV risk by more than 70 percent if you use injection drugs.

However, as William R. Short, MD, MPH, warned, “the biggest challenge is getting patients to actually take their medication each day. It is 90 percent effective when taken daily, but only about 44 percent effective if not taken each day.”

PrEP also must be taken consistently for some time before it reaches its peak effectiveness.

Raising Awareness of PrEP

One of the primary goals of the infectious disease team at Penn has been to spread awareness of the new program and the wide availability and/or accessibility of PrEP.

“We’re really working to get our Ob/Gyns and primary care providers comfortable with prescribing PrEP,” explained McBride. “At the moment many are conducting screenings and making referrals to infectious disease, but we want to work to have PrEP embedded in primary care.”

“Our main goal right now is to create broader awareness of PrEP,” said Dr. Short. “We want to make the public aware of this drug because many of them do not know it exists.”

Dr. Koenig further added, “It is something everyone should know about, even if it’s not right for them at that moment, because it may be right for them later on, or a good option for a friend or loved one now. PrEP is about wellness and about being proactive about health. As providers and public health advocates, tools like this should not be underestimated, but instead promoted and made available to anyone who could benefit, at every opportunity.”

There are very few limitations on who can receive PrEP, making it easier for patients to obtain. PrEP is not known to react with most medications including hormones. If you are interested in getting PrEP, you should see your health care provider to discuss your interest and concerns. “Of note, and very importantly, PrEP is available to everyone, regardless of insurance status, at low or no cost. For people who are not sure where or how to access PrEP, our PrEP navigator can help link people to care at Penn or at one of several sites around the city,” explained Dr. Koenig.

While PrEP is highly effective in preventing HIV, it cannot prevent other STIs or pregnancy. You’re encouraged to use PrEP with a combination of other protection methods, including condoms, to prevent additional infections and/or unplanned pregnancy.

To learn more about PrEP, visit our Sexual Health and HIV Prevention program page, or call our PrEP Line at 267-601-5332.

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