Although the epidemic likely started a decade or two earlier, AIDS wasn’t identified as a new disease until 1981. It took a few more years to isolate HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and to develop reliable tests for diagnosing infection.
In the thirty years since, nearly 30 million people have died and another 35 million are currently infected with HIV worldwide. In the US, over a million people are living with HIV/AIDS. Although the disease still primarily affects gay men in the US, heterosexual men and women — particularly men and women of color — are also at risk. Globally, heterosexual men and women of color bear the largest burden of the disease.
Transmission of HIV is actually very easy to prevent. The virus is spread through bodily fluids, usually through sex but also through the sharing of needles, the use of improperly sterilized medical equipment, or via exposure to contaminated blood products. For most us, practicing safer sex – such as abstinence, monogamy or the use of latex or polyurethane condoms – makes the risk of acquiring HIV very small. Despite this, rates of HIV infection are still too high. Last year, 2.3 million people were newly infected with HIV. 50,000 of these new infections occurred in the US.
One problem is that those most at risk tend to be socially or economically marginalized. Such marginalization can make current HIV prevention messages and tools – abstinence, condoms, and mutual monogamy – inaccessible to many. Thus, there is an urgent need to develop new user-controlled HIV prevention tools, such as vaccines and pre-exposure prophylaxis, that will enable these individuals to protect themselves.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) involves the use of current drugs to prevent rather than treat HIV. Recently, several large-scale clinical trials found that daily use of the antiretroviral drug Truvada® – popping this pill every morning like you would a multivitamin – reduced the risk of acquiring HIV by nearly two-thirds. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has since approved the marketing of daily Truvada for HIV prevention, and Medicaid and other health insurance plans now cover the cost of PrEP for patients at high risk for HIV.
Despite clear evidence that this approach works, however, the use of antiretroviral drugs for HIV prevention has sharply divided the AIDS community. Many activists and advocates have voiced concerns that the use of Truvada for PrEP will lead many people to abandon other methods of protecting themselves, particularly the use of condoms.
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest provider of HIV care and treatment in the US, has described Truvada as “a party drug”. Widespread use of PrEP, Mr. Weinstein believes, will cause the gay community to return to the hedonistic days of the sexual revolution, when promiscuity was rampant and condom-use non-existent. This, he fears, will actually lead to an increase in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in the homosexual community, not a decrease.
The public relations attack by Mr. Weinstein and his allies has been so viscous that proponents or users of PrEP have been labeled “Truvada whores.” While some of these so-called ‘whores’ view this epithet as a badge of honor, others now hide their support or use of Truvada for HIV prevention out of fear or shame.
But what opponents of PrEP fail to consider is the very point I’ve already made: not everyone at risk for HIV can use condoms or insist on monogamy. For many people, daily use of Truvada may be the only HIV prevention tool that is available to them. Others may make a conscious decision not to use condoms or be sexually abstinent. That is their choice, as unwise as some might consider it to be, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have access to other prevention tools.
By publicly disparaging the use of PrEP, Mr. Weinstein and others are discouraging those individuals from seeking out and using this effective HIV prevention tool. They are also preventing them from seeking all of the other prevention-related services that accompany it, including routine HIV testing and STI screening and treatment. That is unfortunate, and likely hurts efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Advocates and activists like Mr. Weinstein are right to voice a concern that use of Truvada alone is not as effective as consistent use of condoms, but they also need to recognize that PrEP is it better than nothing at all when it comes to HIV prevention. This is true not just for the gay community, currently being torn asunder by the acrimonious PrEP debate, but also for injection drug users, women of color, and other high risk groups. More importantly, these adovcates need to acknowledge that use of PrEP with condoms is even more effective at preventing the spread of the virus.
Truvada is a lifesaver, both in terms of preventing the spread of HIV and in prolonging the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS. We should be encouraging its use, not disparaging it. So I’ll say it loud and say it proud: “I’m a Truvada whore!”
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on April 10, 2014. It is also available on the WAMC website.]