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New ad campaign promotes PrEP use

by Liz Highleyman

Gilead Sciences' new ad campaign promoting PrEP features a multiethnic group of young people. Photo: Courtesy Gilead Sciences
Gilead Sciences' new ad campaign promoting PrEP features a multiethnic group of young people. Photo: Courtesy Gilead Sciences  

Foster City-based Gilead Sciences last month launched a new multimedia ad campaign to promote the use of Truvada PrEP for HIV prevention for a range of communities at elevated risk for infection. The ads will appear on broadcast and on-demand TV, digital platforms, and print media.

Given that only a small number of people who could benefit from PrEP are actually using it, some advocates have been pushing Gilead to widely advertise its prevention pill, rather than relying on community-based organizations to promote it. Others, however, have criticized the company for profiting off PrEP.

"I hope this campaign continues to raise awareness, encourages people to consider healthy options, and improves uptake, especially in communities where it's most needed," Alan McCord of Project Inform told the Bay Area Reporter.

The federal Food and Drug Administration approved Truvada (tenofovir/emtricitabine) for HIV prevention in July 2012. It remains the only drug indicated for this purpose. Research shows that Truvada, when taken consistently, reduces the risk of HIV infection by around 90 percent. Several studies have seen no new infections among people who take PrEP at least four times a week.

Adoption of PrEP was initially slow, but by late 2013 it began to rise steeply as primarily white gay men in their 30s and 40s started promoting PrEP within their communities. Based on an ongoing survey of commercial pharmacies, Gilead estimates that more than 160,000 people have taken PrEP since 2012.

However, PrEP is only reaching a small proportion of those who could benefit from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research led by the CDC's Dr. Dawn Smith shows that about 1.1 million Americans are at substantial risk for HIV, but only around 8 percent of them are using PrEP.

The new campaign, dubbed "I'm on the Pill," features a multiethnic group of young people representing communities that have a disproportionately high risk of HIV infection, including young black and Latino/Latina gay and bisexual men and transgender women.

"I am excited to see HIV prevention messaging specifically directed to black and Latinx gay, bisexual, same-gender loving men and transgender women," Ace Robinson, HIV commissioner for South Los Angeles, told the B.A.R. "The sole reason why blacks make up such a large percentage of new infections and deaths is because we have been excluded from timely and culturally-competent education, programming, and access to the necessary tools that will save our lives."

But McCord also expressed some concerns about the Gilead campaign.

"It's important that we reject stigmatizing language, like 'high risk,' which some may not identify with," McCord said. "The characteristic ad disclaimers that highlight risks may also backfire with those who already worry about the risks of PrEP, even the small ones."

One barrier to access is the cost of Truvada, about $1,500 per month. Gilead offers patient assistance for low-income people and a co-pay program for those with insurance, but some advocates say the coverage is too low.

Another barrier is lack of awareness, which "I'm on the Pill" aims to address. A recent poll by Whitman Insight Strategies and BuzzFeed News found that one-third of U.S. gay men and more than half of bisexual men had never heard of PrEP.

"By pairing education with scientific advances in HIV prevention, we hope to empower people with information and tools to have an informed discussion with their healthcare provider about their individual health," said Douglas Brooks, Gilead's senior director for community engagement.

Last month, San Francisco-based Instituto Familiar de la Raza unveiled a new Spanish-language PrEP campaign to raise awareness about the HIV prevention pill in Latino communities. Locally, Viva PrEP features street and public transportation ads and a Spanish-language website, http://www.vivaprep.org.

For more on Gilead's ad campaign, visit https://www.truvada.com/.

Contact the reporter at liz@black-rose.com.

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