As a sexually active man who has sex with other men, marketing senior Justin Owens — like many in the LGBT community raised in the aftermath of the thousands of horrific deaths at the hands of the 1980s AIDS epidemic — made the decision to start taking antiretroviral medications as another safe-sex practice.
“It’s one of the few diseases and STIs that is not curable at this point,” Owens said. “It’s that extra step, that extra caution, to protect myself.”
PrEP — or Truvada, as it is sold — is an antiretroviral prescribed medication used to treat HIV-negative people that, when taken as a daily medication, can reduce HIV contraction by up to 99 percent, according to recent studies and reports.
In the age of popular dating apps such as Grindr and SCRUFF, the drug has attracted sexually active students, like Owens, who are HIV negative ever since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2012.
“PrEP has probably been the most encouraging news for years,” said Peter Reid, communications coordinator for AIDS Services of Austin. “If we can prevent the spread of HIV, we can achieve an HIV-free generation quickly.”
Men who are sexually active with other men made up 78 percent of all males living with HIV in Travis County in 2012, the most recent year of available recorded HIV contractions, according to data from Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services.
The prevalence rate across all genders has continued to steadily increase over the last decade, from 2,677 in 2003 to 4,155 in 2012, according to the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department’s 2015 Critical Health Indicators Report. Between 2003 and 2012, the number of new HIV diagnoses in Travis County fluctuated between 191 and 252, according to the report.
“It’s something I don’t want for myself and I don’t want anyone else to have to go through,” Owens said.
Anyone interested in taking PrEP can let their doctor know whenever they have a visit or get tested. Since the drug is so new, it is possible some doctors still do not know enough about it or are not comfortable prescribing the medication.
To help bridge that gap in providing medication, the Austin PrEP Access Project, AIDS Services of Austin and The Q — an LGBT testing and resource center near campus — are organizations dedicated to providing information about PrEP and testing services to students and other Austinites.
The Q is a resource for students to go to for referrals for PrEP prescriptions and information, according to Marcus Sanchez, an official with The Q.
“[PrEP] is not for everyone, but if you’re having sex, it’s something everyone should consider,” Sanchez said.
In addition to referral services, The Q also provides free weekly HIV testing and information on STIs and treatment resources, another way of decreasing the rate of HIV infections, Sanchez said.
While research and technological advances increase over time, medications like Truvada and PrEP are expected to continue to be refined and become more effective. For now, there are still valuable resources for those considering PrEP as a normal part of their safe-sex routine, Owens said.
“Especially with higher rates of infection in Austin, you just never know,” Owens said. “You can throw on a condom, but if you don’t do that, then at least you were taking something [for] preventing HIV.”