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AIDS Free Pittsburgh helps ramp up HIV prevention

| Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
The Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force has started to offer Truvada, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force has started to offer Truvada, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016.

Clinton Connors makes HIV-related house calls.

Recently, he got a call from a friend: Someone in her Dormont apartment building had been diagnosed with HIV a month ago and still hadn't seen a doctor.

Connors, 36, of AIDS Free Pittsburgh, headed over.

That's where he met Eddie Mosley, 26, and his friend. Not only had Mosley been diagnosed with HIV the month before, but Mosley and his 19-year-old friend had sex recently.

So here were two men — Mosley coming to terms with his diagnosis and his friend at risk of acquiring HIV — both young, African American and gay. The group has the fastest growing rate of HIV nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Connors said he had to act fast if Mosley was going to live the long, healthy life that current HIV treatments promise — and if his partner were to remain negative.

Potent antiretroviral drugs can improve outcomes for people living with HIV and prevent people who are HIV negative from acquiring it.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation launched AIDS Free Pittsburgh last December to slash HIV infections by 75 percent and to eliminate new cases of AIDS by 2020. AIDS often is the result of late HIV diagnosis and delayed treatment, said Dr. Ken Ho, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

Today, it can be avoided — but it requires a multi-pronged approach, one AFP is taking.

“Because AIDS Free Pittsburgh is a network of providers and community organizations that's committed to preventing HIV and doing a lot of good work, we've been able to work together and create projects and ideas that we wouldn't be able to do, each of us on our own,” Ho said.

Pittsburgh, not San Francisco

AFP is based on similar programs in San Francisco, New York and Washington. AFP models its program after San Francisco's approach. A rapid HIV treatment program links people newly diagnosed with HIV to care within 48 hours, said Julia Och, who manages AFP. A pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) ambassador program spreads the word about the HIV-prevention drug Truvada and reaches out to communities most vulnerable to HIV. San Francisco's Department of Public Health covers the cost of some prescriptions and lab visits. Applying San Francisco's programs to Pittsburgh is daunting, said Och. The Pennsylvania Department of Health says Allegheny County

is home to 2,830 people living with HIV, with 145 new infections in 2015 — up slightly from 132 the year before. If people with moderate HIV risk start taking PrEP in a larger epidemic, they still stand a good chance of averting some transmissions.

But the right people have to take PrEP in order to cut transmissions in a smaller epidemic like Pittsburgh, Och said.

“We're Pittsburgh, not San Francisco,” Och said some people have told her. “We want to be able to reach out and get the people who are falling through the cracks.”

Funding the fight

In December, AFP began covering the cost of medical visits and lab tests required for people taking Truvada if they attend one of the clinics. AFP will also help people get Truvada for free — either through a drug assistance program from manufacturer Gilead Sciences or through Medicaid.

AFP also is working with the San Francisco Department of Public Health to help adapt its 48-hour HIV treatment linkage program to Pittsburgh. And it has PrEP ambassadors who attend health fairs and talk to the community about PrEP and how it can help avert transmissions.

That's how Connors wound up at Mosley's home in December.

“It's really been a life-changing kind of thing for me,” said Connors, who describes himself as having grown up poor, gay and moving around the west end of Pittsburgh.

He said Dr. Stacy Lane at the North Side's Central Outreach Wellness Clinic screened him a year and a half ago for HIV risk and suggested Truvada.

At first he was suspicious, saying it “seemed too good to be true.”

Still, he tried it. He started to be more thoughtful about his relationships, he said. He also began volunteering as a PrEP ambassador and got a job at Central Outreach. Now he had a purpose: to dismantle the anti-HIV and anti-gay stigma he said was so common when he grew up.

When Connors arrived at Mosley's apartment, he said, he explained the facts of HIV to Mosley and his friend: That it's important to get medication as soon as possible, that HIV isn't a death sentence anymore and that you can keep yourself from acquiring HIV if you take Truvada consistently.

Mosley said he and Connors pressed Mosley's friend to at least talk to the doctor about Truvada.

“We told him it's a must-do,” Mosley said. “You must be on PrEP. That pill is needed in a lot of our lives.”

Mosley's friend declined to comment for this story but confirmed Connors' and Mosley's accounts.

Mosley and his friend agreed to see the doctor. Connors paid for their bus tickets and even a beverage on their way to Central Outreach. Mosley's friend left the visit with a prescription for Truvada. Mosley had a check up and, a few days later, started taking his HIV treatment.

It's all because of Connors, Mosley said.

“(Connors) is not only helping people,” Mosley said. “He's saving lives.”

Heather Boerner is a Tribune-Review contributing writer

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