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These heroes’ superpower: Preventing the spread of HIV

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A new class of heroes is taking a stand against HIV and AIDS by educating others on how to stop the spread of the epidemic.

It’s part of a superhero-themed campaign, called PrEP Heroes, to spread the word about HIV prevention. It was created by Housing Works, an advocacy organization that works to end AIDS and homelessness, fashion photographer Mike Ruiz and former “Project Runway” design contestant Jack Mackenroth.

PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, a type of drug that prevents HIV from establishing itself if someone is exposed. The nine models who appear in the campaign use PrEP to prevent HIV, and Mackenroth, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, is an advocate for PrEP.

“People taking PrEP are protecting the greater community by ending the epidemic with them,” Mackenroth said. “We wanted an edgy, bold and attention-grabbing campaign to embody this idea.”

Andrew Greene, the senior vice president of marketing for Housing Works, said the campaign is working off the New York Department of Health’s blueprint to end the AIDS epidemic within the state by 2020. It is the first state in the nation with such a plan. The three-pronged approach includes “expanding HIV testing, helping those with HIV to get treatment and prevent transmission to others and expanding access to PrEP to prevent new infections.”

The FDA approved the first PrEP drug, called Truvada, in 2012. It’s a once-daily pill for those who might be at risk of HIV infection through sex or injection drug use; it’s marketed to those at high-risk for HIV exposure and transmission. PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk by up to 92%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a recent study released by Kaiser Permanente, researchers observed no new HIV infections among patients using PrEP over the course of 2½ years.

Charles Quiles first learned about PrEP in 2013. "Since then, it's impacted my approach by adding an added level of safety from current methods of prevention," he said.

Charles Quiles first learned about PrEP in 2013. “Since then, it’s impacted my approach by adding an added level of safety from current methods of prevention,” he said.

Since the flashy campaign debuted this year on social media and on posters in bars and gyms, Greene has already seen people wanting to learn about PrEP, and looking beyond stigma that it’s a drug only for people with many sexual partners or frequent sexual activity.

“Many of them hadn’t heard of PrEP until they saw this,” Greene said. “It concerns me that they didn’t know about it. I hope this helps to destigmatize PrEP and make it more approachable.”

Each year, about 50,000 people are infected with HIV in the United States, according to the CDC. About 1.2 million are already living with it, and out of those people, 12.8% don’t know they are infected.

“Don’t stigmatize people or their behavior and focus on the fact that we can cure HIV,” said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the assistant commissioner of New York’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control. “Be honest with yourself and your provider if you’re at risk for HIV and have real conversations about sexual health.”

However, not everyone supports the preventive drug and awareness campaigns around it. Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is concerned the focus on PrEP could take away from other prevention efforts. Weinstein said he’s concerned that patients won’t adhere to a daily routine or take measures to prevent other sexually transmitted diseases. Truvada is most effective when it’s taken daily, and only prevents HIV.

“We have worked hard to build a condom culture over the last 30 years and we have undone a lot of that,” Weinstein said of PrEP drugs. “The best way to prevent the spread of HIV is the use of condoms. This new generation didn’t live through the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s.”

Mackenroth is also concerned that PrEP could be seen as a license not to use condoms, but he’s frustrated, too, that the drug has been slow to build popularity.

“This is a drug that will prevent a possibly fatal illness, but it hasn’t had an impact domestically or globally,” Mackenroth said. “It’s a major biomedical advance that needs widespread accessibility and focus. There is more light to shine on this cause for young people, who are the most at-risk age group, and their parents. And if this was 1990, everyone would be taking it.”