Today is National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
One in five new HIV diagnoses is in young people under the age of 25. But despite that, young people make up only 12% of current PrEP users. When we add race to the mix, things look even worse—in 2016, only 1% of African Americans and 3% of Latinos who could potentially benefit from PrEP were prescribed the drug. This is despite the fact that PrEP would be especially beneficial for people from these communities, since HIV disproportionately impacts communities of color.
There are a lot of barriers to accessing PrEP, especially for teens. But young people deserve access to this powerful HIV prevention tool. By learning about PrEP (and talking about it with your health care provider), you’re taking care of your health and standing up for your right to HIV prevention services.
If you’re a young person interested in—or just confused about—PrEP, here’s what you should know.
What is PrEP?
PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It’s a pill (also called by its brand name, Truvada) that, when taken once a day, every day, protects people who don’t have HIV from getting the virus. With perfect use, PrEP reduces the chances of getting HIV from sex by over 90%.
Keep in mind that PrEP is different from PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), which is taken AFTER exposure to HIV to prevent infection. If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV within the last 3 days, you can get PEP from your health care provider or an emergency room.
Should I take PrEP?
PrEP is for people who do not have HIV and have a greater chance of getting HIV. Even though many PrEP users are men, PrEP is also for women (cisgender and transgender) and non-binary folks. If you’re interested in PrEP, talk to your health care provider. Using PrEP is a personal decision, and completely up to you.
You might want to think seriously about PrEP if…
- You’re having sex with someone who has HIV.
- You don’t always use condoms and are not in a mutually monogamous relationship.
- You inject drugs or are having sex with someone who injects drugs.
- You’re having sex with someone who has sex with other people and doesn’t always use condoms.
- You’ve recently had an STI.
Keep in mind that even though many PrEP users are gay or bi men, PrEP is also for women (cisgender, transgender and non-binary).
What are PrEP’s side effects?
PrEP’s side effects are usually pretty minimal. Some people get nausea or an upset stomach when they first start taking it. Usually, these symptoms go away as their bodies gets used to the medication.
Will my parents know?
Not necessarily. In some states, like New York, minors (people under the age of 18) can get sexual health care like PrEP without parental consent. In other states, it can get a bit trickier. Talk to your health care provider about what your state’s laws are.
Even if you can get sexual health care confidentially, PrEP may show up on an explanation of benefits if you use your family’s insurance. Ask your health care provider about work arounds, or whether you can ask to have the explanation of benefits go to the provider’s office instead of your home.
Why hasn’t my doctor told me this?
Even though it’s safe and effective, PrEP is still a relatively new drug. Some providers aren’t familiar with it, and aren’t sure when they should bring it up with patients—especially teens.
Just because your doctor hasn’t talked to you about PrEP doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring it up. You can also use www.preplocator.org or www.pleaseprepme.org to find a provider near you who prescribes PrEP.
Can I afford PrEP?
Most insurance, including Medicaid, covers PrEP. Assistance programs also exist to help cover co-pays and the cost of medication. Check out this handy chart from the CDC. (Keep in mind that this chart is from 2015, and details may have changed. People under age 18 are now eligible for Gilead’s PrEP Medication Assistance Program.)
If you’re under 22 years old and live in NYC, you can make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center to get PrEP for free.
What else should I know?
If you decide to take PrEP, your health care provider will give you an HIV test. They’ll ask you to come in for regular visits (usually every three months) to check on your kidney function, test you for HIV and other STIs, and make sure you’re taking PrEP as recommended. If you have a vagina, they’ll also do a pregnancy test and talk about your birth control options.
PrEP does NOT protect you from other STIs, and doesn’t prevent pregnancy. It’s still important to use condoms for STI prevention, and birth control if you have a vagina and are having penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex.
Being on PrEP doesn’t say anything about who you are as a person, just like having HIV or another STI doesn’t say anything about who you are as a person. Using PrEP just means that you’re taking care of your sexual health!
If you’re under 22 years old in NYC, call (212) 423-3000 to make a free, confidential appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. We can get you set up with free PrEP, STI testing and treatment, birth control, and other comprehensive health services. No judgment, no charge.