Atlanta clinic offers drug to prevent HIV infections

- Mesha Robinson, who is 38 and transgender, does not have HIV, and she wants more than anything to keep it that way.  So, Robinson takes a blue pill known as Truvada every morning.

"I live by it," Robinson says.  "It's in my bathroom.  When I put my makeup on, I pop my pill once a day."

Robinson, who is single, is at higher-risk for contracting HIV, she says, because she has sex with men who might have the virus.  That's why comes to the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness' PrEP Clinic in Downtown Atlanta to get Truvada, which is known as a "pre-exposure-prophylaxis" drug. When taken consistently, PrEP is 92 percent effective is preventing the transmission of HIV through sex, and about 70 percent effective against the spread of the virus through IV drug use.

"It means life," Robinson says.  "Because sometimes you get into situations where you don't have condoms around.  And you want to live."

Atlanta ranks fifth in the nation in new HIV infections. That troubles PrEP Clinic director Dr. David Holland, an infectious disease specialist who heads up the Communicable Disease Prevention Program for the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness. Younger people, Dr. Holland says, particularly men who have sex with other men are hardest hit.

"This has been the case for many years, and we haven't really been able to turn it around," he says.

Dr. Holland believes Truvada could be a game-changer, if the county can get the drug into the hands of those most at-risk of becoming infected with HIV, like Mesha Robinson.

"We're looking primarily for men who have sex with men or women who have multiple sex partners, or maybe have one sex partner who is HIV positive," Dr. Holland says.

But there is one major challenge. Truvada is expensive. Without insurance, Dr. Holland says, it could cost up to $1,500 for a 30-day supply.

"It was very, very difficult for people to get it if they didn't have insurance," Holland says.

So, Fulton County has partnered with the Truvada's manufacturer Gilead Sciences to open one of the first PrEP clinics in the U.S. The goal is to connect uninsured higher-risk patients like Mesha with a prescription assistance program that will allow getting Truvada at no cost.

"And it's like over 90 percent effective," Robinson says.  "It's a win-win for you. So why wouldn't you take it?"

Mesha Robinson has been on Truvada for 18 months. She remains HIV-negative. The drug, she says, gives her protection and peace of mind.

"I'm free of it," Robinson says.  "As long as I take my once a day pill. And I feel free."

To find a PrEP program in your area, go to www.preplocator.org.

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