Paula Clark, director of HIV Services for the Jackson County Health Department, displays some of the materials the agency has available to inform people about PrEP, a once-a-day pill that, when used consistently, can prevent at-risk people from getting infected with HIV

MURPHYSBORO — The Jackson County Health Department is doing its part in fighting the amount of new HIV cases in the lower 19 counties of Illinois.

The state has launched a campaign titled “Getting to Zero,” meaning the state would like to see zero new HIV cases. New HIV cases have dropped by 28 percent from 2006 to 2015, mother-to-child HIV transmission has been nearly eliminated, and there are fewer than 1,000 cases a year in Chicago for the first time in two decades.

Jackson County’s health department has a drug for HIV-negative individuals who are at risk of contracting the disease that could significantly decrease that risk.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a once-a-day pill that, when used consistently, can prevent at-risk people from getting infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. A person with HIV can be virally suppressed, meaning individuals have a lower amount of the virus in the body and therefore a much lower chance of transmission. They also live healthier lives.

Some who would benefit from the drug are people with an HIV-positive partner. Paula Clark, director of HIV Services at the health department, said individuals should always practice safe sex even on PrEP, but sometimes accidents happen, like a condom breaking.

Others who could benefit from the drug are people with multiple partners, people who are pregnant with a positive partner, or people who are not in monogamous relationships.

The drug doesn’t allow the HIV virus to get enough strength to attack a person’s cells. Clark said the drug surrounds the cells and infiltrates the cell and replicates until that cell explodes, and those particles transfer to other cells. The process then repeats.

Clark said there are doctors who believe a person who is virally suppressed has a zero percent chance of passing on the virus to a person who is taking PrEP daily.

“The state feels if we can increase the uptake of PrEP for those who are at risk and keep those who know they are HIV-positive virally suppressed, they feel like in 10 years we can get to zero new cases,” she said.

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PrEP is more than 90 percent effective for sexual transmission and 70 percent for needle transmission. PrEP alone will only reduce a person’s chance of contracting HIV. It will not reduce a person’s chance of contracting other sexually transmitted diseases, Clark said.

If a person wants to obtain PrEP, they first visit the health department for a risk assessment. That includes lab work, making sure the patient has healthy kidneys, an HIV test, and STD testing. Those costs are covered by the health department. The patient will then be scheduled into an once-a-month clinic where a physician will review the labs and then write a prescription. Afterward, the patient is seen quarterly, in which the labs are repeated.

Clark said the drug can be expensive — a couple thousand dollars — but Medicare and most private insurances cover the drug. While she acknowledges the expense of the drug, Clark says it’s much cheaper on the front end.

“Prevention is way cheaper than taking care of the disease after you get it,” she said.

Alex Davenport, SIU graduate student and PrEP user, said he didn’t begin to use the drug until fall of 2015 because his previous insurance didn’t cover it.

“When PrEP initially came out I was interested by it but wasn’t sure if it was the best choice,” he said. “After seeing the research and results, though, I felt like it would be worth trying to get on it in order to reduce my risk.”

Clark said the lower 19 counties see about 26 new cases a year. However, she said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that health departments should take the number they have for cases and multiply it by at least nine. That is because there are large amounts of people who don’t get tested or don’t know they have the virus.

For more information, contact the health department at 618-684-3143 or visit www.jchdonline.org.

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