In the Tampa Bay area, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) use is booming among white gay men and lagging among the young gay men of color whose HIV rates have been highest—and climbing—in recent years.
We spoke to Rebecca Nessen, M.P.H., vice president of strategic initiatives at Metro Inclusive Health.
Rebecca Nessen: I’ve been in this role for a little more than a year and with Metro for more than six years. Before that, I worked in Atlanta at a free clinic for homeless women and children. I was there for four years while getting my graduate degree at Emory Rollins School of Public Health. My interest and focus has always been on serving people from underserved communities.
Metro was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1992 as an HIV/AIDS agency, so we’ve been around for a long time doing services for people living with HIV, as well as for the broader LGBTQ community, including medical case management, prevention and outreach, health education, and HIV and STI testing. Then in 2013, we partnered with CAN Community Health to do HIV medical care services, and in 2015, we opened our own primary medical care services for the broader LGBTQ community, although all are welcome. We also do PrEP and hormone therapy for the transgender community.
TM: What is the HIV picture in both counties?
RN: Certainly within both counties, rates of new HIV diagnoses are increasing, which is disturbing, with higher rates of infections in young men who have sex with men (MSM) of color, particularly in south St. Petersburg.
TM: How are efforts going to get and keep more MSM of color on PrEP?
RN: It’s a challenge. We have many patients on PrEP, but the majority are insured white men. We’ve heard a lot about the stigma associated with PrEP, or people concerned that they may not be able to cover the cost. We hear people being highly concerned about kidney function. Also we have people who’ve decided that one pill daily is just not for them, or who have trouble keeping up with the appointments every three months. We’ve redesigned our PrEP navigation in order to make it as easy as possible on the patient. Our navigators are all PrEP peers who can build a strong rapport. That has increased our retention. We have marketing campaigns promoting PrEP, a lot of info blasts and promotion of different events. And all of our HIV testers out in the field are educating and engaging people about PrEP.