The AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, which celebrates its new medical clinic in Madison Thursday, is arming patients with a new tool to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic: a pill for people who don’t have HIV but are at high risk of getting it.
More than 30 patients at the Madison site are undergoing pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, to prevent infection if they are exposed to HIV. They take a daily medication — Truvada, also used by many people with HIV — and get tested regularly for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
“It’s the most important new HIV prevention strategy since the condom or the clean needle,” said Mike Gifford, president and CEO of the Milwaukee-based AIDS Resource Center, which absorbed the former AIDS Network in Madison in a merger last year.
The center has added a medical clinic and a pharmacy to the services the network provided, which include dental care, behavioral health, a food pantry and social, legal and prevention services.
Through a $1 million renovation, the center has doubled the space available, in a different part of the same building the network was in, at 600 Williamson Street.
In October, the center started offering PrEP in Milwaukee to people at very high risk of contracting HIV through sex or injection drug use. PrEP became available to such people at the Madison clinic when it opened in December.
The Food and Drug Administration approved PrEP in 2012, but it wasn’t widely used until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released clinical guidelines in 2014.
So far, 34 of the 80 people doing PrEP through the AIDS Resource Center are from the Madison site, Gifford said. The goal is for 250 people to be taking the preventive medication by the end of the year and at least 1,000 people in a few years, he said.
“At that level, we should be getting to see some nice reduction in new HIV infections if we are hitting the right population,” he said.
The number of new HIV diagnoses in Wisconsin has been fairly stable the past decade, with an average of 247 cases per year. Wisconsin had the ninth-lowest HIV diagnosis rate among states in 2014. Last year, 62 percent of new cases were among racial and ethnic minorities. About 8,000 people in the state are living with HIV.
UW Health’s HIV/AIDS clinic also offers PrEP, with about 130 patients on it, spokeswoman Emily Kumlien said.
At Dean Clinic’s HIV/AIDS clinic, about 45 patients are on PrEP, spokeswoman Kim Sveum said.
Gifford said that 35 years after the first report of what is now known as HIV/AIDS, stigma and discrimination remain.
At its Madison clinic and its nine other locations around the state, the center has no external signs telling people what lies inside.
“We want to create an environment where our patients feel very comfortable,” Gifford said. “If a sign gets in the way of that, even for one patient, we don’t want that to happen.”