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For the first time, New York state initiative focuses on HIV prevention

October 24, 2019 Kelly Mena
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A new statewide initiative aimed at increasing education and prevention methods around HIV/AIDS launched for the first time this year, highlighting a once-a-day pill that reduces the transmission of the disease.

“PrEP Awareness Week,” which runs from Oct. 20 to Oct. 26, aims to boost public awareness of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a once-a-day pill taken by people who are HIV-negative to reduce their risk of infection if they’re exposed to HIV.

The pill has proven to be 99 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission when taken regularly, according to city officials. Truvada is the only form of PrEP currently approved by the FDA.

“Increasing access to PrEP is one of our greatest weapons in winning the war against HIV,” said Doug Wirth, president and CEO of Amida Care, a provider of PreP. “PrEP is a game-changing pill, so tell your friends, talk to your family members, have conversations at work and when you go to your house of worship, whether that is a church, mosque or synagogue, or another house. You need to talk about sex, and we need to talk about taking care of each other.”

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Wirth went on to note that usage of the drug is on the rise across the state, with the largest portion of new users being cis-gendered white men.

Amida Care provides the drug free through Medicaid to anyone who is eligible, but for those whose insurance plans don’t cover the medication, prescriptions can run up to $1,000 monthly, Wirth said.

The state offers a program for those who need financial assistance accessing the drug, which reimburses enrolled patients for certain services, including HIV testing, adherence counseling, and STD testing and treatment.

“I’ve been on PrEP a while, but the issue is access to it can be very difficult,” said Octavia Kohner, a transgender woman who has been using the drug since 2012. “Taking it everyday can be very difficult. So I think mobile clinics are really important, to sort of bridge the gap between people who are aware and people who are actively taking it.”

As part of the awareness week, events have been running throughout the week to promote safe sex — like a condom giveaway on Friday evening.

Places that currently offer PrEP in Brooklyn include SUNY Downstate, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Housing Works and Brightpoint Health or Community Healthcare Network, according to Wirth.

The statewide effort comes as Brooklyn recently experienced a spike in new HIV cases. In 2017, the borough saw an uptick of more than 10 percent in new HIV diagnoses, a significant change from 2016. The increase was the only one citywide, compared to an overall decrease of 11 percent across New York City in the same year.

The neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights were among the hardest hit, accounting for a quarter of the new diagnoses in the borough, according to city data.

“We want to increase the usage of PrEp, to educate people on how important it is to use PrEp and also to empower young people to take the initiative in having safer sex practices,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

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