Word on the street is that there’s a little pill you can take every day to protect yourself from ever getting HIV. But that’s crazy, right? What’s actually crazy is that more people don’t know about it! There’s a lot of rumors circulating about PrEP, or “Pre-exposure Prophylaxis,” so we’re here to clear the air. Let’s get started.
PrEP refers to taking daily medication prior to being exposed to HIV to dramatically reduce your chances of getting the virus. Right now, there’s only one medication available, called Truvada, and it’s been around for about 5 years. Keep reading to learn more about this game changing pill, and to see if it’s right for you.
Does it Have Side Effects?
Truvada works by preventing the HIV virus from multiplying, buying the immune system time to fight off the infection before it’s too big to tackle. While Truvada is very effective in preventing the virus from multiplying, it has minimal effect on human cells. In short, side effects are rare. A small number of people—about 5%–will experience some headaches or intestinal distress such as bloating or diarrhea in the first month of treatment. For people who already have kidney disease, Truvada could further impair kidney function, so routine monitoring is recommended for these people.
Does it really work?
Yep! Truvada for PrEP is incredibly effective if taken every day. Studies have shown it to be over 92% effective in preventing HIV infection. The key is taking it regularly. Scheduling a time to take it every day and setting a phone reminder will help you get in the habit of taking your medication.
I hear it’s really expensive. How could I afford that?
Medication for PrEP is expensive, but fortunately many patient assistance resources are available. For starters, at this point most insurance companies cover PrEP. The company that makes Truvada has a patient assistance division that will help you understand your insurance benefits. Plus, the division provides a co-pay relief card that can cover copay costs and insurance deductibles up to $7,200 per year! Go to gileadadvancingaccess.com for full details. And if you’re uninsured, don’t worry. Public health departments in some states can provide PrEP free of charge! Your medical clinician can help you figure it all out. In short: many patients are able to obtain PrEP with NO out of pocket costs.
How do I know if I should take it?
Great question! PrEP is recommended for those who are at “high risk” of getting HIV, but that description definitely covers a wide variety of people and it can be confusing to navigate. There are a number of things that put you at higher risk of getting HIV: having an HIV positive sexual contact, having sexual partners who don’t know their HIV status, having anal sex (particularly anal receptive sex), living in areas that have high rates of HIV infection, having condomless sex, and sharing needles. Young men who have sex with other men (MSM), young men of color, and trans women have the highest risks of HIV infection. The CDC has projected that if current rates of HIV persist, 1 in 2 young black MSM, 1 in 4 young latinx MSM, and 1 in 9 MSM overall will become infected with HIV in their lifetime. Spreading the word and getting more people access to PrEP has the potential to help improve these staggering statistics.
How do I find a doctor who can prescribe it?
The Center for Disease Control maintains a database of PrEP prescribers which makes finding a provider super easy! Local public health departments are often a good resource too.
Do I need to have a doctor?
You do need to be under medical care to get PrEP. It’s very important to make sure that you don’t have HIV infection before starting PrEP. Unfortunately, the dose of medication in Truvada is not enough to treat an HIV infection. If you accidentally take Truvada when you have an active infection, your virus could develop resistance to the medication, limiting your choices for effective HIV treatment later on. That’s while while taking Truvada you need to have an HIV test every 3 months to make sure you haven’t contracted HIV. Kidney function testing, as well as various other STI screening is also done at the regular visits.
That’s a lot of doctor visits!
It is a lot of doctor visits, and it can be hard to fit them into your life. Some clinics are developing ways to get the regular HIV and STI tests without so many visits to an office. binx health is building such a system with our at home testing methods — so make sure to stay tuned for more on that in the near future!
Does PrEP prevent other STIs?
Medication for PrEP does not prevent or treat other STIs. Consistent condom use is recommended as a backup to PrEP, and to prevent other STIs. Regular STI testing every 3 to 6 months is recommended for those taking PrEP.