When PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) was released onto the market a decade ago, it was one of the greatest medical advances in the history of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) — and it still is.
If used properly, the prescription medicine can reduce a person’s chances of contracting HIV from sex by up to 99%.
While PrEP’s 10th anniversary on July 16 is considered celebratory, experts like Leisha McKinley-Beach say there’s still one problem: Black people, who need the drug most, aren’t using it.
“Black people in the U.S. represent less than 10% of PrEP prescriptions, but we represent 40% of the new HIV cases. You know, something is wrong with that picture,” McKinley-Beach, a national HIV/AIDS consultant, told Word In Black in a phone interview.
Leisha’s stats are correct. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black folks accounted for 42% of new HIV diagnoses in 2019, even though we make up only 12.4% of the nation’s population.
And when it comes to PrEP, only 8% of Black people “who could benefit” from the drug were given prescriptions in 2019.
PrEp Commercials Sometimes Leave Black Women Out
McKinley-Beach says part of the issue is marketing. She says there’s only one commercial about PrEp on television right now. Even though Black women make up 60% of new HIV infections among U.S. women, the commercial primarily shows men.
It also offers a disclaimer that it’s not safe for females to use.
“The only thing you know about PrEP might be from the commercial that you see on television. And that commercial says it’s not for individuals assigned female at birth,” she says.
It’s true. That particular version of PrEP — Descovy, which is produced by Gilead — is not for women because they may not have been included in the research for the pill.
McKinley-Beach says she’s interviewed dozens of women who may have seen the commercial that they “run on BET all the time,” and now believe PrEP is not for them — but that’s not the case.
Descovy is one version of PrEP. Although it’s not advertised as aggressively, Truvada is another oral pill produced by Gilead that’s safe for women to use. There’s also an injectable version of PrEP that’s safe for women and other groups.
“As it stands right now, if you are assigned male at birth, there are three options. There are two oral options — so take by mouth — and there’s one injectable option. If you are assigned female at birth, there are two options. There’s one oral option and then the injectable,” McKinley-Beach says.
Overall, she feels that while pharmaceutical companies are businesses, they have a responsibility to ensure folks who are impacted by illnesses like HIV have all the healthcare options they need.
“I feel like every pharmaceutical company that is benefiting from HIV funding because people living with HIV and people who are trying to prevent HIV are taking their medications, it is a responsibility to ensure that our community as a whole is aware and has access. Period. And I don’t care which pharmaceutical company it is,” McKinley-Beach says.
Because she didn’t want the 10th anniversary of PrEP to be painted “as this beautiful rosy experience” while so many people are lacking access, McKinley-Beach brought together a group of advocates around the nation to speak up about the issue.
Creating a Black-Centered Coalition to Inform the Community
“PrEP in Black America” is a campaign and a coalition who will convene in September alongside national leaders and politicians to invest in a national PrEP program “created for Black people and by Black people.”
Danielle Campbell, a community organizer for HIV/AIDS and a member of PrEP in Black America, says that to end the HIV epidemic, Black folks must have a say in the solution.
“If you identify as a person of African descent in this country, HIV is in your community. And as such, we should be centralized and centered as part of the HIV epidemic response in that community,” she says.
Campbell is looking forward to the roll-out of the coalition’s campaign. As “the first of its kind to be planned by Black people,” it will include images, messages, and tailored implementation plans.
“We understand that PrEP is one resource, but getting PrEP into the bodies of people who need it the most involves us unpacking all these other structural factors,” she says about the first steps.
McKinley-Beach says we’re all a part of the movement to end the spread of HIV in our community.
While PrEP can only be used by people who haven’t contracted the virus and are seeking protection, folks who are HIV-positive can take separate medication to become virally suppressed and prevent transmission of HIV to others.
“We are either Black people living with HIV or we are Black people who are preventing HIV,” she says.