“We have a lot of tools in our toolbox to help us stop the spread of HIV,” Marina Leonardos, senior community liaison for Gilead Sciences, says to the audience at the Black Health Matters Summit at the Riverside Church in Harlem, New York.
And we’ve made excellent strides in fighting the virus. For instance, “we know if someone is HIV positive and they have so little virus in their body you can’t detect it with a test, it is really hard to pass HIV along to someone sexually,” she says.
There’s more good news: Women living with HIV can lead full complete lives. In fact, two years ago there were no babies born with HIV in New York City. And someone who is 20 right now and is diagnosed with HIV can live healthy until their 70s and 80s.
People who remember the early days of the AIDS epidemic know these are major strides. But they are also something of a curse, because things are going so well, a lot of people think HIV isn’t an issue anymore.
“We know how not to contract this. We know how we can end this,” Leonardos says. “But we still get 40,000 new HIV infections in this country a year.”
So how do we stop new infections? “The only way we’re going to stop this infection is to have everybody who is positive know they’re positive,” she says. “If your medical provider doesn’t offer you testing every year, make them offer you testing. Knowing your partner’s status is important so you know how to protect yourself.”
This is where Truvda, also known as PrEP, comes in. For people living with HIV, Truvada is part of a treatment cocktail. When a person who doesn’t have HIV takes Truvada, this one-pill-a-day regimen provides protection against contracting the virus.
It’s very effective—when people take it. “We did two really big clinical trials looking at the effectiveness of Truvada for PrEP,” Leonardos explains. “One looked at transgender women who have sex with men and men who have sex with men. It was 92 percent effective in people who actually took it. The second trial looked at heterosexual couples, and it found Truvada for PrEP was 90 percent effective.”
Is Truvada for PrEP right for you? Yes, if you’re at high risk, Leonardos says.
And who’s at high risk?
- anyone who has had a sexually transmitted infection “Birds of a feather flock together,” Leonardos says. If you have chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis, that increases your risk of contracting HIV.
- anyone who has used IV drugs
- people with multiple sex partners
- anyone who has sex without condoms
- people who have sex in a geographic area or within a sexual network where HIV is more common (Go to aidsvu.org and enter the zip code of where you date to see incidence and prevalence of HIV.)
- people who exchange sex for drugs, food or a place to live
- people who use recreational drugs or are dependent on alcohol (or drink enough alcohol where it changes their decision-making)
- people who have ever been in jail or prison
- people who have sexual partners whose HIV status is unknown
- men who have sex with men
This is another statistic to consider when someone is trying to ascertain their risk level: According to Leonardos, there’s a lot of HIV on college campuses.
If your health care provider prescribes Truvada for PrEP, here’s what you should know:
- While taking the medicine you’ll need to see your doctor once every three months to make sure you’re still HIV negative, that your kidneys and liver are OK and that you have no other STIs.
- You need to be on Truvada for PrEP for a month in order for it to be 90 percent effective.
- Commercial insurance and Medicaid cover Truvada for PrEP. If you’re uninsured, check Gildead’s medication assistance program.
- There’s still no such thing as safe sex. A lot of times people think of oral sex as safe sex. “It is the least risky, but it’s still risky,” Leonardos says. “The only safe sex is rosy palm and her five sisters. You can get a lot of STIs orally. Receptive anal sex is the highest risk, but that doesn’t make oral sex not risky. Oral sex is sex. If you go for HIV testing, all the places that had fun need to be checked.”
- This medication doesn’t mean you can have unprotected sex. “Condom-less sex—even with Truvada for PrEP—can still be risky,” Leonardos says. “This is not a panacea. This is not the end all be all. This is only a tool.”