For all of the promise that pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) holds, there are significant barriers that can keep it from decreasing the risk of HIV. In the Florida cities of Gainesville and Orlando, the local health departments are using a number of innovative ways to take down those barriers and expand access to PrEP in Black communities.
Many people aren’t aware of PrEP, says Gay Koehler-Sides, human-services program manager for the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, where Gainesville is located. Others may choose not to look into PrEP because of false notions about the regimen they must maintain in order for it to be effective. Still others may wrongly believe that one must have a lot of money to be able to afford PrEP.
In order to increase the utilization of PrEP in the state of Florida, people must know it exists and have access to accurate information so that they can make informed decisions about it. Here are four ways that local health officials have been getting the word out:
1) They provide access to PrEP. Once a week, PrEP is offered at the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County’s PrEP Clinic. “We have a physician, a nurse and a tech to provide those services, and those are many of the same staff who work in our HIV clinic,” Koehler-Sides says.
While there is currently no PrEP clinic in Orlando, hopefully that will change soon, says Earl Hunt, government operations consultant for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County. “We are getting a PrEP coordinator, and we are in talks about opening a PrEP clinic in our STD Department two days a week,” Hunt says. In the meantime, the Florida Department of Health in Orange County has been referring people to Two Spirit Health Services, Bliss Healthcare Services or Orlando Immunology Center for any PrEP needs.
2) They train practitioners to talk about PrEP. One of the greatest priorities when it comes to increasing the utilization of PrEP is spreading the word. You can’t wait for people to come asking about PrEP; rather, you have to go into the community and let them know about it.
“All of our disease-intervention specialists have business cards, so when they are seeing clients who might be at high risk for HIV, they can pass out cards and let those clients know” about the Alachua County PrEP Clinic, Koehler-Sides says.
3) They strategically engage the press. The more people hear about PrEP, the more comfortable they will be talking about it, and some will decide to use it. That’s the thinking behind the decision of the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County to be featured in articles such as one that ran in a local newspaper distributed in communities of color as part of STD Awareness Month. “We took that opportunity to highlight our PrEP Clinic and get the information out there,” Koehler-Sides says. They also publish articles about PrEP in their local newsletter.
4) They talk to the community directly. In order to expose more Black Americans to PrEP, the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County targets activities that are popular with minorities for outreach. For example, it passed out flyers about the PrEP Clinic at the popular Fifth Avenue Arts Festival earlier this year.
In Orlando, the Florida Department of Health in Orange County put on a 12-week educational program called Chat-Care-Connect, says Hunt. Members of the community were invited to learn about different topics, one of which was PrEP.
When it comes to PrEP, education is key, and Florida officials want to make sure that people know they have options, and that they have all the information they need to make their own decisions about their health.
“Every opportunity we can, we are trying to get the word out,” Koehler-Sides says.
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.