In late October, the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force cut the ribbon on its renovated facility in East Liberty.
Inside, the organization, which formed three decades ago in the thick of the AIDS crisis, had expanded its existing pharmacy and food pantry.
The task force also opened a medical clinic, which offers care to people with HIV and AIDS and testing for HIV, STIs and Hepatitis C. There’s also a clinic devoted to pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, an HIV prevention method that involves taking what’s been called a “miracle” medication.
Truvada was approved for PrEP use by the Food and Drug Administration a few years ago, and “usage is, thankfully, increasing,” according to Andrew Ptaschinski, the task force’s communications coordinator. Taken daily, the medication “reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90 percent,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A handful of other providers in Pittsburgh offer PrEP (including the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases), but “it’s not something that’s widespread,” Ptaschinski told The Incline. In fact, any doctor can prescribe it.
Through conversations with clients, PATF learned that “doctors may not know about the medication,” Ptaschinski explained, “or they may not be comfortable prescribing the medication, because they don’t have a lot of experience with it. Or quite frankly, people are not comfortable talking to their doctor about sex or about potential HIV-risk behaviors.”
When PATF was thinking about its renovation, it wanted to become “a hub” for PrEP in Pittsburgh, he said.
The medication has not been shown to have any serious side effects, per the CDC. But clients who take PrEP should be tested for HIV every three months and have their kidneys screened every six, Ptaschinski said.
That’s why PATF employs special health advocates “who can help guide people through that process.” The guidance includes information about and help with medication adherence — as Ptaschinski pointed out, medicine doesn’t work unless you take it.
In addition to the advocates, PATF works with a mail-order pharmacy that delivers prescriptions directly to clients and offers text reminders about taking the medication.
PATF wants its PrEP clinic to reach people “at the greatest risk of contracting HIV,” Ptaschinski said. Mirroring national trends, that means men who have sex with men, especially men of color, in this region.
Ptaschinski said PATF is spreading the word about the clinic through apps including Grindr and Scruff, as well as through social media and in safer sex kits the organization distributes at local bars.
PATF’s new medical clinic, Ptaschinski stressed, is not just for people living with HIV. The clinic is for people who need STI testing and treatment but may not be comfortable seeking that type of care at a primary care physician. It’s for people in the LGBTQ community who “have experienced a lack of cultural competent care” elsewhere, he said.
The clinic accepts all forms of insurance, and Ptaschinski said PATF can work with people who aren’t covered.
“We are seeing everybody.”