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Few People Taking "Game Changing" HIV Prevention Drug

Mandie Trimble
Josh Culbertson, who is HIV negative, said he takes PrEP to reduce risk of infection.

There’s a pill that can help prevent HIV infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines on it, last year. But few at-risk people, in Columbus, are taking it. Local health officials issued an alert to area doctors, Monday, about the breakthrough drug.

The drug is known as PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis. Truvada – the brand name – has been used to treat HIV for years. But researchers found it is 92 percent effective at preventing new infections if the drug is already in someone’s body.

Simply put, Truvada blocks the virus from replicating.

But health officials say few people know about PrEP. And even fewer are taking it.  

“I think it’s about people becoming familiar that it is very, very, very effective and that it is very available,” said Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Teresa Long.

Long, who called the PrEP a "game changer," said an alert was sent to local physicians about the drug.

The AIDS Resource Center Central Ohio provides most local prescriptions, so far, to about 60 people.

Josh Culbertson is one of them. He’s gay and HIV negative. Culbertson first heard about PrEP on social media.

“I thought it was too good to be true. And the more I read about it, the questing in my head shifted from can this be real to why aren’t we putting this in the drinking water,” Culbertson laughed. “You know, why are we not doing everything we can to minimize the risk of new infections?”

Culbertson has taken the daily drug for about three months. Aside from some headaches the first week or so, he said there have been no side effects.

“I’m really shocked at the number of people who are unaware and haven’t heard of it and are just amazed that such a medication exists,” he said. “So while I constantly keep getting asked these days ‘why did you decide to start taking this medication?’ I think a better question is: ‘why would I not?’”

Columbus Public Health soon will roll out a “PrEP Yourself” educational campaign. Gay men, young African-American males and intravenous drug users are some of the targeted demographics.

Health officials say access to doctors is a reason for the low local prescription rate. But Dr. Long puts the onus on physicians to ask patients about their sexual behavior, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Stonewall Columbus executive director Carla Rothan encourages people to breakout out of what she called “internalized homophobia” and to be honest with doctors about their sexual health.

“To go to your doctor and out yourself and let them know that you are at-risk is probably something that doesn’t happen very often,” Rothan said. “And so I think that people are still in the closet. They’re still afraid to come out to their doctors. And that’s why we have support groups that help in that manner from [Stonewall Columbus] because...it’s healthier in many cases to be ‘out.’”

Health officials dispute critics who say the pill will promote promiscuity and discourage condom use. OSU's Dr. Jose Bazan said clinical trials indicate some people engage in less risky behavior when they take PrEP, in part, because they're thinking about their own risk. 

PrEP patients must submit blood work every three months. 

Truvada is covered by most insurance companies and Medicaid. The drug’s makers, Gilead, also offer financial assistance programs.