Medical Technology

CDC to everyone: Inform them about HIV PrEP and don’t “Grill” patients

Starting today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all clinicians talk to their sexually active adolescent and adult patients about HIV preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) at least once and prescribe the prevention pills to anyone who asks for them, whether or not you understand their need for it.

“PrEP is a part of good primary care,” Demetre Daskalakis, MD, CDC’s director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, told Medscape Medical News. “Listening to people and what they need, as opposed to assessing what you think they need, is a seismic shift in how PrEP should be offered.”

The expanded recommendation comes as part of the 2021 update to the US Public Health Service’s PrEP prescribing guidelines. It’s the third iteration since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first HIV prevention pill in 2012, and the first to include guidance on how to prescribe and monitor an injectable version of PrEP, which the FDA may approve as early as this month.

Today, there are two pills, Truvada (emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate, Gilead Sciences and generic) and Descovy (emtricitabine/tenofovir alafenamide, Gilead Sciences). The pills have been found to be up to 99% effective in preventing HIV acquisition. The new injectable cabotegravir appears to be even more effective.

The broadened guidance is part of an effort from the country’s top health officials to expand PrEP prescribing from infectious disease specialists and sexual health clinics to healthcare professionals, including gynecologists, internal medicine physicians, and family practice clinicians. It appears to be necessary. In 2020, just 25% of the 1.2 million Americans who could benefit from PrEP were taking it, according to CDC data.

But those rates belie stark disparities in PrEP use by race and gender. The vast majority of those using PrEP are White Americans and men. Sixty-six percent of White Americans who could benefit from PrEP used it in 2020, and more than a quarter of the men who could benefit used it. By contrast, just 16% of Latinx people who could benefit had a prescription. And fewer than 1 in 10 Black Americans, who make up nearly half of those with indications for PrEP, had a prescription. The same was true for the women who could benefit.

Researchers and data from early PrEP demonstration projects have documented that clinicians are less likely to refer or prescribe the HIV prevention pills to Black people, especially the Black cisgender and transgender women and same-gender-loving men who bear the disproportionate burden of new cases in the US, as well as fail to prescribe the medication to people who inject drugs.

Normalizing PrEP in Primary Care

When Courtney Sherman, DNP, APRN, first heard about PrEP in the early 2010s, she joked that her reaction was, “You’re ridiculous. You’re making that up. That’s not real.”

Today, Sherman is launching a tele-PrEP program from CAN Community Health, a nonprofit network of community health centers in southern Florida. The tele-PrEP program is meant to serve people in Florida and beyond, to increase access to the pill in areas with few healthcare professionals, or clinicians unwilling to prescribe it.

“When I go other places, I can’t do what I do for a living without getting some sort of bizarre comment or look,” she said. But the looks don’t just come from family, friends, or her children’s teachers. They come from colleagues, too. “What I’ve learned is that anybody — anybody — can be impacted [by HIV] and the illusion that ‘those people who live over there do things that me and my kind don’t do’ is just garbage.”

That’s the PrEP stigma that the universal PrEP counseling in the guidelines is meant to override, said Daskalakis. Going forward, he said that informing people about PrEP should be treated as normally as counseling people about smoking.

“You can change the blank: You talk to all adolescents and adults about not smoking,” he said. “This is, ‘Tell adolescents and adults about ways you can prevent HIV, and PrEP is one of them.’ “

The guidelines also simplify for monitoring lab levels for the current daily pills, checking creatinine clearance levels twice a year in people older than age 50 and once a year in those younger than 50 taking the oral pills. Daskalakis said that should ease the burden of monitoring PrEP patients for healthcare professionals with busy caseloads.

It’s a move that drew praise from Shawnika Hull, PhD, assistant professor of health communications at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Hull’s recent data showed that clinicians who espoused more biased racial views were also less likely to prescribe PrEP to Black women who asked for it.

“Public health practitioners and scientists have been advocating for this as a strategy, as one way to address several ongoing barriers to PrEP specifically but also equity in PrEP,” said Hull. “This sort of universal provision of information is really an important strategy to try to undo some of the deeply intertwined barriers to uptake.”

“Don’t Grill Them”

The updated guidelines keep the number and proportion of Americans who could benefit from PrEP the same: 1.2 million Americans, with nearly half of those Black. And the reasons people would qualify for PrEP remain the same: inconsistent condom use, sharing injection drug equipment, and a sexually transmitted infection diagnosis in the last 6 months. There are also 57 jurisdictions, including seven rural states, where dating and having sex carries an increased risk of acquiring HIV because of high rates of untreated HIV in the community.

That’s why the other big change in the update is guidance to prescribe PrEP to whoever asks for it, whether the patient divulges their risk or not. Or as Daskalakis puts it: “If someone asks for PrEP, don’t grill them.”

There are lots of reasons that someone might ask for PrEP without divulging their risk behaviors, said Daskalakis, who was an infectious disease doctor in New York City back in 2012 (and a member of the FDA committee) when the first pill for PrEP was approved. He said he’s seen this particularly with women who ask about it. Asking for PrEP, he said, ends up being an “ice breaker” to discussing the woman’s sexual and injection drug use history, which can then improve the kinds of tests and vaccinations clinicians suggest for her.

“So many women will open the door and say, ‘I want to do this,’ and not necessarily want to go into the details,” he said. “Now, will they go into the details later? Absolutely. That’s how you create trust and connection.”

A Mandate and a Guideline

Leisha McKinley-Beach, MPH, a member of the US Women and PrEP Working Group, has been urging greater funding and mandates to expand PrEP to women since the first pill was approved. And still, McKinley-Beach said she recently met a woman who worked for a community group scheduling PrEP appointments for gay men. But the woman didn’t know that she, too, could take it. 

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends healthcare professionals offer PrEP to those who can benefit. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) have a 2014 committee opinion stating that PrEP “may be a useful tool for women at highest risk of HIV acquisition.”

But the ACOG opinion is not a recommendation, stating that it “should not be construed as dictating an exclusive course of treatment or procedure to be followed.” McKinley-Beach said she hopes that the new CDC guidelines will prompt ACOG and other professional organizations to issue statements to include PrEP education in all health assessments. A spokesperson for ACOG said that the organization had not seen the new CDC guidelines and had no statement on them, but pointed out that the 2014 committee opinion is one of the “highest level of documents we produce.”

“We have failed for nearly a decade to raise awareness that PrEP is also a prevention strategy for women,” McKinley-Beach told Medscape Medical News. “In many ways, we’re still back in 2012 as it relates to women.”

Hull reports having done previous research funded by Gilead Sciences and having received consulting fees from Gilead Sciences in 2018. McKinley-Beach reports receiving honoraria from ViiV Healthcare. Sherman and Daskalakis have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Heather Boerner is a science journalist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her book, Positively Negative: Love, Pregnancy, and Science’s Surprising Victory Over HIV, came out in 2014.

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