With HIV cases on the rise, Alaskans consider new tool for prevention

Twenty-four people in Alaska have been diagnosed with HIV since January. Normally, that’s the total number of new diagnoses for an entire year, not just six months. Now Alaskans have a new way to help prevent HIV infections. The Center for Disease Control recently released new guidelines for a daily pill that can prevent new infections, though it’s not seen as a cure-all.

PreP in AK

Pre-exposure prophylaxis is commonly called PreP. It’s a drug that’s also used to treat HIV and prevent it from developing into AIDS. PreP is aimed at people who do risky things, like have multiple, anonymous sexual partners or share needles. Studies show that if a person takes it consistently–every day–it’s 92% effective.

“Taking a pill everyday if you’re practicing these high risk behaviors isn’t easy,” said Susan Jones with the state’s Section of Epidemiology. “Having HIV infection and coping with that is harder.”

Jones said using PreP is also a good choice for HIV negative individuals who are in relationships with people who are HIV positive.

The drug, called Truvada, has been available since 2012 but guidelines for using it as a preventative tool were only released by the CDC in May. Jones says now people in Alaska need to learn about it.

“The task of identifying those people at high risk really falls on the health care providers. And they’re not always used to asking those tough questions about sexual behavior.”

Part of that may be because sexual behavior is changing. One third of the people who tested positive for HIV this year were men who met their partners through phone apps or online. But Davy Norris from the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association said the new technology isn’t the problem.

“It’s not really the technology that’s the issue, it’s the way people are using that tool. Young men are having multiple anonymous sexual partners and not using condoms and just kind of doing it very unsafely.”

Norris said people don’t need to stop using the apps, they just need to be responsible when they find a partner that way. And he emphasizes that using PreP isn’t an excuse to stop using condoms. “We want people to have a comprehensive understanding of HIV prevention and to try multiple things because that’s the most effective way.”

He also notes that only half of the new infections are in men who have sex with men. “So it’s certainly not fair to say it’s just a gay issue.”

Anyone can be infected by HIV, especially if they participate in risky behaviors. But Jones says PreP could be an effective tool in stopping the spread of the disease. “Maybe there’s 23 more people out there that we can prevent from getting an infection at the end of this year.”

Truvada is widely available. However, without insurance, it costs about $1,000 per month. Studies show that side effects are minimal.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne