David was skeptical. It sounded too good to be true. A once-a-day pill that could help healthy people avoid HIV infection?
But David also knew he was at high risk because his partner was HIV-positive.
So after careful research, the 21-year-old Oakland resident decided to join an unusual program that will give the drug known as Truvada to more than 100 East Bay youths, along with safe-sex counseling and other sexual health services.
Those overseeing the program hope it can help solve a serious problem: The number of people nationwide who are newly infected with HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS, has held steady at about 50,000 annually in recent years after dropping sharply in the late 1980s, despite health professionals’ best efforts to tackle the problem.
"There is a degree of frustration — we don’t seem to be able to reduce the level of transmission," said George Lemp, director of the University of California Office of the President’s HIV/AIDS Research Program.
"A lot of people felt that we needed more aggressive approaches," he said.
With that in mind, the UC program will award $18 million in grants over four years to teams in Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego to test a new approach that includes distributing Truvada to high-risk groups. The South Bay has no similar program.
Truvada, manufactured by Gilead in Foster City, has been used for years to treat people infected with HIV. Then last year, the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration also approved its use to help prevent HIV in high-risk healthy people.
Studies have shown that Truvada can reduce the risk of infection by 42 to 75 percent, Lemp said. But he noted that such studies include those who fail to take it regularly. Risk-reduction could be as high as 90 percent for those who take it daily, he said.
"That’s a very effective intervention," he said.
The Bay Area program will be overseen by the Downtown Youth Clinic, part of the East Bay AIDS Center at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland. It can be reached at 510-921-6680.
Those involved have high hopes.
"I believe this (program) is going to make a huge dent in the progression of the disease, and I think this is going to be a model for other cities," said Michael D’Arata, director of clinical services for the AIDS center.
The San Francisco Department of Public Health began a demonstration project in 2012 that distributed Truvada to healthy gay men and transgender women.
Gay men have been hit hardest by HIV, with 29,800 new infections in 2010, a 12 percent jump from 2008. Within that group, African-American and Latino youths have been particularly affected, experts say.
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