Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a plan that would make a daily pill designed to reduce the risk of contracting HIV in high risk communities available to community members throughout the county.
The pill, pre-exposure prophylaxis or “PrEP,” has been distributed through small pilot programs thus far. The only PrEP drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to date is Truvada, which was approved in 2012 for preventative use.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl proposed the widespread rollout of the drug, which she contends is mandatory for a strong HIV prevention strategy for high-risk populations and uninsured residents, especially minority members of the county’s LGBTQ population.
According to a 2014 county report, an estimated 60,050 people were living with HIV/AIDS at the close of 2013.
While numerous HIV/AIDS organizations have stood in support of such plans, AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein objected, calling PrEP a “party drug” that at-risk users would neglect to take properly.
Long Beach leaders familiar with communities at high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS disagreed.
Porter Gilberg, Executive Director of the LGBTQ Center of Long Beach, said the city would welcome the drug with open arms. According to him, Long Beach experiences HIV infection rates “nearly twice the county average.”
“The LGBTQ Center of Long Beach is incredibly excited to hear about the LA County Board of Supervisors’ approved motion to increase access to PrEP in LA County,” Gilberg said. “The addition of any tool that has been medically proven to reduce HIV infection is a victory for communities everywhere.”
Gilberg asserted that proper adherence to PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 96 percent, and that at least 30 partners stood in support of a large-scale PrEP rollout.
Other Long Beach health care workers agreed.
“Overall, it’s good that LA County is addressing this issue,” said Dignity Health Case Manager Michael Buitron. “More can be done to reduce transmission of HIV, and making PrEP readily available is one more effective tool to that end.”
Buitron noted that quite a few PrEP studies were going on in Long Beach, with the Long Beach Health Department as one of the enrolling sites. He said as it currently stands, it is difficult for at-risk individuals to access PrEP on their own.
But, he said, the issue goes beyond PrEP.
“The other big issue is PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis,”Buitron said. “For PEP to be effective, a person must start taking the medication in 72 hours—and even sooner is recommended. Right now there’s no system in place to get folks access to this quickly, and only two unadvertised locations where it’s available—and those places aren’t open on the weekends.”