Fulton County health officials openly embraced PrEP for HIV prevention on Friday, launching a new clinic for the once-a-day pill to combat the virus among high-risk groups, including gay men.
And combined with a partnership with the drug’s maker, Gilead Science, PrEP and the medical exams and physician follow-ups required will be offered for free to HIV-negative people. The effort is aimed at three target groups – young men who have sex with men, HIV-negative people in a relationship with someone who has the virus, and women in high-risk groups.
Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves (top photo) said launching the clinic is part of the county’s “aggressive approach” to combatting HIV. Metro Atlanta is a leader in new HIV cases, a “very sobering statistic” that prompted county health officials to take action to enhance its HIV prevention efforts, he said.
“We are going to be a leader like San Francisco, we are going to be a leader like New York City in terms of being aggressive,” Eaves said. “We are here because Fulton County cares. We are here because we have one tool in the toolbox to address the issue.”
The clinic for PrEP – the FDA-approved pre-exposure-prophylaxis drug known as Truvada – makes Fulton’s health department one of the first across the South to offer the service, according to David Sarnow, interim director of the county’s health department.
“By impacting transmission we can make big strides in curbing the epidemic,” Sarnow said.
The clinic will help the county move toward its goal of zero HIV infections, according to David Holland, the health department’s chief clinical officer. And with the clinic offering PrEP and its associated health screenings at no cost, the county is removing one of the largest barriers preventing people at risk for HIV from receiving the preventative treatment – cost, he said.
‘PrEP is very, very effective’
“When people take it and take it regularly, it is very very effective, upwards of 90 percent and maybe even perfectly effective at preventing HIV,” Holland (second photo) said. “This is really the first new tool for protecting people in 30 years. What we’ve had is condoms or don’t have sex, and you know how well that worked.”
Holland said PrEP puts an HIV prevention method in the hands of HIV-negative people “in a moment of calmness and rational thinking” – as opposed to navigating condom usage in the heat of a sexual encounter.
“The challenge in getting prep out to people has been the cost. What we are doing here in Fulton County is to fill that gap and make PrEP available for people who are uninsured and otherwise can’t pay for it,” he said.
Holland said that HIV-negative people will undergo screening by the health department and a handful of medical tests that take up to two weeks for results to be returned. People without insurance or with high-deductible plans will also complete some minimal paperwork to apply for Gilead’s financial assistance program.
But Holland said Fulton health officials are working to shrink the amount of time it takes for a person who wants to be on PrEP to receiving their first dose to two or three days.
“I consider this the first step in a long journey toward getting to zero infections. For me what it represents is something that is very important here in Fulton County. We have the political will and the staff has the interest and the energy and the ability to pull off a clinic that incorporates new technology to be leaders in the southeast in addressing HIV,” Holland said.
For more information, contact the Fulton County Department of Health & Wellness or call 404-613-4708.