Local researchers planning PrEP-awareness program for women

While one in four people in the United States living with HIV is a woman, few women are aware of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), an FDA-approved daily oral medication shown to reduce risk of infection. 

Now, women can learn about PrEP’s benefits thanks to a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which provided $769,578 to the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and the New York Blood Center. Penn Nursing and NYBC will use the funds to create an awareness program about the drug for women. 

Dr. Anne M. Teitelman, associate professor of nursing at UPenn, and Dr. Beryl A. Koblin, the head of the Laboratory of Infectious Disease Prevention at NYBC, will co-lead the project.

“I think a lot of women don’t see themselves as at-risk,” Teitelman said. “A lot of times, they’re living in neighborhoods where there is a high prevalence of HIV. They may not be aware of that.”

Koblin mentioned how “a lot of the efforts in terms of reaching out and advertising [PrEP] have been very understandably focused on men and even more so among transgender women.”

“There hasn’t been as much effort to develop materials and ways to try to reach women who are at risk through heterosexual contact,” Koblin added. “And I don’t know how many providers are actively having those discussions with women in order to be able to tell them about our different options.”

The study will include in-depth interviews with women in Philadelphia and New York City, areas where HIV is most prevalent, to identify barriers women face in acquiring PrEP. Researchers will then compile and analyze the information to determine the most effective ways to increase knowledge about the medication.

Teitelman said they plan to begin the trial in the two cities but intend to reach more women going forward. She said the researchers have an idea of an intervention but will adjust it to reflect the findings they acquire during the initial phases of the study.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the 87 percent of new HIV infections among women in 2014 were attributed to heterosexual sexual contact, Teitelman said that women identifying as lesbians could still potentially be at risk for the virus depending on with whom they engage in sexual contact.

“Sexual identity and sexual activity are different,” Teitelman said. “[Risk of infection] is based more on what people do, where they live and what their vulnerability factors are that might place them at risk. They need to know what those are so they can make the right decisions for themselves.”

Koblin said the NIMH grant allows the researchers to hear from the women themselves about factors affecting their willingness to take PrEP and any barriers preventing them. 

“It really gives us that opportunity to go all the way from the very beginning to care for the voices of the women and what they will need in order to uptake PrEP and adhere PrEP all the way to testing it out,” Koblin said.

Teitelman said this particular intervention program may not end HIV/AIDS but the NIMH grant puts them one step closer to that aim.

“We’re all working really hard to try to end this epidemic and I don’t think any one intervention is going to do it, but I feel like [the grant] helps us get closer to that goal.”