Columbus, Ga- While new HIV infections in Georgia continue to rise, there is hope in the form of a drug called PrEP or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. Health experts say, PrEP can stop the infection in its tracks, but the drug is not reaching those who could benefit from it the most.
News 3’s Darian Aaron digs deeper in this special report.
Once a day, Dedrick Tillerson takes Truvada for PrEP-a single blue pill to help prevent HIV infection. It’s been a part of his daily routine and ongoing effort to protect his sexual health since the FDA approved the drug in 2012.
“Like, I always tell people-PrEP is my insurance plan…well my backup insurance plan, because obviously the first thing should be a condom,” says Tillerson. “HIV is one thing,but there’s so many STI’s out there that you can contract.”
That reality is something Amistad St. Arromand addresses head on.
“When I think about HIV and HIV in Georgia and HIV in rural communities, we know that it’s younger people, people who are between 15 and 23 who are African-American and getting HIV at such high rates, “says St. Arromand.
Which is why he advocates for PrEP as prevention. A tool he says, had it been available decades ago would have altered his life.
“Had PrEP been available twenty years ago, certainly, I would not be living with HIV,” says St. Arromand.
That’s why Columbus Dr. Saeed Baloch is determined to start a conversation about PrEP despite the presence of stigma.
“It’s a little difficult for me in the Columbus area,” says Baloch. “I have to start a conversation instead of patients starting a conversation with me. So it’s the other way around. It’s me who is trying to find patients and tell them about PrEP.”
Baloch tells News 3 because of stigma and personal bias in medicine-he may be the only local doctor willing to offer PrEP to those who need it.
“Unfortunately, it seems like it’s true…that I may be the only doctor willing to prescribe PrEP without judging my patients.”
“I lived with stigma for many, many years…a fear of telling people, fear of being around people, fear of telling my family, fear of being rejected, fear of maybe not having a job or fear of maybe if I had the job and I told my employer before they hired me I had HIV-maybe they wouldn’t give me health insurance,” says St. Arromand.
“I have a lot of patients whose medicine comes to my office cause we do mail order medicines, they don’t want the medicine to come to their home,” says Baloch.
Tillerson says much of the focus around HIV has been centered around those living with the disease, but PrEP is changing that.
“There’s always more talk about the folks that have contracted HIV versus PrEP,” says Tillerson. ‘”Now the CDC has made a stronger push for a lot of these local agencies and local advocates to start pounding the pavement more about PrEP.”
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-50% of the 1.1. million Americans who could benefit from PrEP were black. But African-Americans only accounted for 1% of those actually filling PrEP prescriptions.
“I feel like after being on the drug for so long now, my health is better than it ever has been,” says Tillerson.
“We are all being impacted by HIV,” says St. Arromand. “It is here, it is not something that is out there, it is everywhere we go. And we can love one another and protect one another from HIV by just understanding that PrEP is available and accessible.”
On your side, Darian Aaron, WRBL News 3.
More info on PrEP
Ways to pay for Truvada for PrEP