Tuscaloosa Debuts First PrEP Clinic
Tuscaloosa’s new clinic offers services that could help combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the South.
By Curtis Williams
The Five Horizons Health Services clinic celebrated its grand opening on Feb. 5, offering HIV outreach and prevention services to citizens of West Alabama.
Formerly the West Alabama Aids Outreach, the nonprofit broadened its services to include counseling, screenings for sexually transmitted diseases and infections, and Tuscaloosa’s first PrEP clinic.
Prep, or Pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a combination of two HIV medications that prevent the body from contracting HIV after sexual contact with someone who is HIV-positive. PrEP is taken once daily, and studies by the Centers for Disease Control have shown that a patient who takes the pill as prescribed lowers their risk of contracting HIV by 92 percent.
About 50,000 people are infected with HIV each year. The CDC reports that Southern states account for four out of 10 people living with HIV in the United States, despite only having one-third of the United States population. The South faces several factors such as poverty, income inequality and a lack of access to healthcare.
Nearly 13,000 Alabamians were living with HIV in 2016, according to AIDS Alabama.
Ebony Lyons, a nurse practitioner for Five Horizons, said the first step of ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic is to educate and provide access to preventative medications.
“We live in an area where people aren’t comfortable talking about sex, so many people aren’t talking about sexually transmitted diseases,” she said. “Some people don’t know PrEP exists. It’s a conversation that our society needs to have, because this can save lives.”
The Five Horizons Health Services is the the nearest PrEP clinic for Tuscaloosa citizens was at the University of Alabama at Birmingham 1917 Clinic, a one-hour drive. The distance and recurring lab work made it difficult for patients who could not commute for appointments.
Michael Bowen, a PrEP doctor at the UAB 1917 Clinic, said the distance and resources posed factors that prevented new Tuscaloosa patients from applying to the Birmingham site.
“On PrEP you have to be screened every three months for HIV and all other sexually transmitted diseases,” he said. “That requires blood work and we do urine samples to monitor kidney function. Some people don’t have the time or money to commute an hour back and forth to Birmingham for a set of labs that takes 20 minutes. It’s not just about Tuscaloosa, it’s about any place that doesn’t have access to a clinic like ours.”
While it is a preventative drug, PrEP benefits members of both the HIV-negative and HIV-positive community. Kachina Kudroff, coordinator of the UAB 1917 Clinic, said it empowers members of both communities and fosters an inclusive society.
“This drug lets people have the sexual relationships they want and that’s empowering,” she said. “Twenty years ago, it was unheard of to be with someone that was HIV-positive and the positive community was alienated. We don’t have to follow that status quo anymore. PrEP removes the fear, which removes the stigma.”