Fran Lowry

June 10, 2013

Many teens and young adults at high risk for HIV in Washington, DC, would be willing to take pre-exposure prophylaxis every day to prevent infection, if only they were aware that such a thing existed.

In a study conducted to ascertain knowledge, acceptability, and willingness to use prophylaxis in sexually active at-risk people, only 10% said they had ever heard of it.

And when they learned that medication could protect them from HIV infection, most said they would take it, if offered by their healthcare provider.

The findings were presented at the 8th International Conference on HIV Treatment and Prevention Adherence in Miami, Florida. The meeting was jointly sponsored by the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Post Graduate Institute for Medicine.

Dr. Amanda Castel

"As our study showed, there is very limited knowledge of pre-exposure prophylaxis overall," lead investigator Amanda Castel, MD, MPH, from George Washington University in DC, told Medscape Medical News. "There is a definite and urgent need for a lot of education and social marketing if pre-exposure prophylaxis is going to be an effective HIV prevention intervention."

In the past 18 months, several studies have shown that the option is an effective method of reducing HIV incidence in a variety of populations, including men who have sex with men, heterosexuals, and serodiscordant couples, where one person is negative for HIV and the other is positive.

Some ongoing trials are focusing on adolescents and young adults, but not many are looking at whether youth are even interested in pre-exposure prophylaxis or willing to take it, Dr. Castel said.

To find out, she and her colleagues surveyed 293 patients attending a clinic for sexually transmitted infections, a community-based general clinic for gay men, and a general adolescent health clinic at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC.

The prevalence of HIV in Washington is higher than anywhere in Russia.

All participants were HIV-negative and had had sex in the previous 6 months. Participants 13 to 24 years of age accounted for 45% of the cohort and those 25 years and older accounted for 55%.

"We were able to get waivers of parental consent so that we could include participants younger than 18," Dr. Castel noted.

The participants completed their surveys using iPads. "It takes away some of the interviewer bias because we were asking sensitive questions about sexual behaviors, condom use, that kind of thing," she said.

Just 31 participants had previously heard of pre-exposure prophylaxis, 9 of whom were in the younger age group.

Significantly more people in the older group than in the younger group reported that they were more likely to use the medication if it had few or no adverse effects (78% vs 62%; P = .02).

In addition, more older than younger participants reported that they would take medication if it were offered by their healthcare provider (70.6% vs 62.4%; P = .02) and would be able to follow a provider's instructions (76.9% vs 67.7%; P = .03).

Also, significantly more of the older group would prefer to take it after sex than as a daily medication (32% vs 20%; P = .004).

Finally, 64.7% of youth reported they would consider participating in future studies.

"Overall, there is very limited knowledge about pre-exposure prophylaxis and potentially poor adherence. Those things may pose pretty distinct barriers to implementation in this population," Dr. Castel said.

She conceded that taking medication every day for a condition that you don't have is difficult and requires strong motivation and organizational skills.

"A provider might have a patient who fits the high-risk-for-HIV profile, but that person might be terrible at adherence, so may not be a good candidate for pre-exposure prophylaxis, which requires taking it on a daily basis. In that situation, perhaps another prevention intervention, like encouraging condom use, could be tried," she said.

Injections of a long-acting antiretroviral might also be particularly useful for teens and young adults, she suggested.

Dr.Benjamin Young

Medscape Medical News asked Benjamin Young, MD, vice-president and chief medical officer of the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care in Washington, DC, to comment on the study. "This is a really interesting paper because we know from a number of large studies that pre-exposure prophylaxis can work in people who are at risk and who can be adherent to medication."

The study is particularly relevant in a place like Washington, DC, which has the highest prevalence of HIV in the United States, if not the world, Dr. Young added.

"I used to work part time in Russia, and the Russian Ministry of Health used to point out that the prevalence of HIV in Washington is higher than anywhere in Russia and approaches the prevalence in certain capital cities in East Africa. The United States takes on enormous efforts and spends all this money around the world, yet here in Washington, rates are super high, especially among young gay men and young gay men of color."

"I thought it was a travesty that Barrack Obama didn't walk the 3 or 4 blocks from the White House to the convention center during the AIDS conference last summer. It wasn't that he was tied up doing important state business or was out of the country. He was in the White House at the time and the flag was flying during the conference. That was particularly poignant if not outrageous to me, and I'm a supporter," Dr. Young said.

The failure on the part of President Obama to attend the AIDS conference highlights the problems that lead to such a high HIV prevalence in the nation's capital, he added.

"State-level programs work on prevention, but Washington, DC, because it doesn't have a state government but a somewhat dysfunctional city government and doesn't have adequate representation in congress, is forgotten," he said. "The AIDS epidemic is probably just one symptom of this. The study by Dr. Castel's team speaks to this problem. That is why it is important."

Dr. Young said he agrees that much more awareness about pre-exposure prophylaxis is needed.

"The amazing thing is that 90% of at-risk people didn't even know that it exists. It's probably the same nationwide; I don't think this is unique to Washington. But the study shows that people would use pre-exposure prophylaxis if they knew about it and could get it," he noted.

Dr. Castel reports no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Young is an employee of the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care and reports financial relationships with Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, ViiV Healthcare.

8th International Conference on HIV Treatment and Prevention Adherence. Presented June 3, 2013.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.