Drug Available the Past 5 Years Can Prevent 90% of HIV Infections, But Women Don’t Know About It

By Kristine Hartvigsen on March 10th, 2017

Imagine wiping out the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the disease that can cause life-threatening Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). That goal actually may be within reach during our lifetime. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a medication that prevents HIV infection in high-risk patients has been available since 2012. The drug, a blue pill with the brand name Truvada, is 90% effective in preventing sexually acquired HIV when taken daily, as prescribed.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Truvada in 2004 specifically to treat people who are already infected with HIV. Eight years later, the agency approved Truvada to prevent infection in HIV-negative people.

Yet many women have never heard of the drug, known as a Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP).

HIV first became widely known in the United States in the 1980s. HIV infects immune system cells and reproduces to create more infected immune system cells in a sort of domino effect that inhibits the infected person’s ability to fight many infections.

The virus does not receive as much attention today as it once did, perhaps because medical advances have allowed people to live decently with HIV and not necessarily develop AIDS. In addition, the number of new HIV diagnoses among women declined by 40% between 2005 and 2014. Nonetheless, an estimated 1 in 139 women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. An astounding 11% of the estimated 287,400 U.S. women living with HIV do not even know they are infected.

On a related note, people who may have been exposed to HIV have the option to take a cocktail of antiviral medicines, also known as Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). This is not the same as PrEP. PEP should be used only in emergency situations and must be started within 72 hours of suspected exposure and taken daily for 28 days. It is not 100% effective, and it is not intended as an option for people who have frequent unprotected sex.

Today (March 10) is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Abstinence remains the only 100% foolproof way to prevent sexually acquired HIV. Even people who are taking PrEP should not stop using protection. PrEP doesn’t protect against other sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms add another layer of protection.

The CDC has recognized that PrEP has the potential to end the HIV epidemic, but awareness is low. This could be due to emphasis on condom use and possibly just stigma. Gilead, the maker of Truvada only started marketing their product for PrEP a couple of months ago. And some public health officials urge caution, because PrEP could encourage risky behaviors.

In observance of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, a campaign called Rock the Red Pump to encourage constructive dialogue about HIV as well as support for women who are impacted by the virus. Participating women are asked to wear their favorite pair of red shoes to raise awareness about HIV. Women? Shoes? A perfect conversation starter.

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