In December, the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health released its annual report presenting data on HIV/AIDS cases in the city. Today, there are 18,658 people living with HIV in Philadelphia, and there were 382 new diagnoses of HIV in 2022, a slight increase from the previous year.
Although significant progress has been made in the treatment of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and AIDS, the late infection stage of HIV, the virus is still spreading. Approximately 1.2 million people in the United States have HIV, with people ages 13 to 34 accounting for 58 percent of new infections in 2021, according to the most recent data from HIV.gov.
Temple students, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, should be routinely taking proactive measures to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS and to protect their health and the health of others.
All students can test routinely for HIV, and those who are at higher risk of getting HIV from sex or injection drug use can be prescribed pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a pill or shot that reduces the chances of contracting HIV from sex or injection drug use.
HIV testing is the first step in preventing further transmission, as nearly 40 percent of new HIV infections are transmitted by people who don’t know they have the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When individuals know they are HIV positive, they can get treatment and remain healthy and noncontagious for many years, according to the CDC.
Temple’s Student Health Center provides testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, with costs typically ranging from $0 to $15 depending on students’ insurance and income, said Dr. Thomas Trojian, clinical director of SHS.
Jack Kleiner considers HIV testing necessary and believes students should be educated on the benefits of routine STI testing and safer sex practices.
“HIV is common, it’s very common, and it’s important that people know where to go and where to get tested and that they should get tested,” said Kleiner, a junior gender, sexuality and women’s studies major and past co-president of Peer-Led Sex Ed, a student sexual education organization at Temple. “There are options that are affordable in and nearby, maybe just a couple of blocks from their dorm.”
All sexually active people ages 13 to 64 should be tested for HIV and other STIs at least once a year.
Dr. Billie Swiggard, a staff physician specializing in infectious disease at the Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ+ health facility located on Bainbridge and Broad Streets, prescribes PrEP frequently and believes it to be a valuable resource with a positive impact on HIV rates.
“I have been asked about PrEP at least hundreds and perhaps thousands of times, and I have never said no,” Swiggard said.
PrEP is highly effective at preventing HIV, reducing the risk of contracting it sexually by approximately 99 percent, according to the CDC.
However, only about 30 percent of 1.2 million people eligible for PrEP in the United States were prescribed the medication in 2021, including individuals who don’t have HIV but are at risk due to sexual activity and drug use, according to the CDC.
SHS does not currently provide PrEP medication on campus, but students who are interested in the medication can go there for free PrEP counseling services to begin the process and determine if it’s right for them.
“We have providers here who are very comfortable prescribing for and taking care of people on PrEP,” Trojian said.
SHS can help students determine their PrEP eligibility, obtain a prescription if qualified and schedule an appointment with a physician or nurse practitioner. However, a PrEP prescription should not stop students from practicing other safer sex methods.
“It’s been shown that if they are on PrEP, that it reduces their chances of contracting HIV, and HIV only,” Trojian said. “It does not help prevent other sexually transmitted infections, so we still recommend safer sex practices.”
Safer sex practices include using protection, like condoms, and engaging in regular testing for sexually transmitted diseases, according to John Hopkins Medicine.
“This stuff really works, you know, HIV is not the scourge it once was,” Swiggard said. “We have these truly miraculous modern drugs that can help a person rebuild their immune system and keep them healthy for long, long periods of time.”
PrEP is typically covered by insurance, but for those who are uninsured or still on their parents’ insurance who may prefer an alternative option, many sources in Philadelphia provide free or low-cost HIV testing and PrEP for students to take advantage of.
Here are some resources near campus:
- Philly Keep on Loving, a completely online and over the phone telehealth program by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, provides Philadelphia residents with free oral PrEP and HIV and STI self-test kits delivered in the mail regardless of insurance coverage.
- The Mazzoni Center offers free PrEP counseling and medication, as well as HIV and STI testing.
- Bebashi, a nonprofit organization based in Spring Garden, offers affordable in-person and mail self-tests for HIV and STIs.
- Health Center 1, located on 19th and Broad Streets, is Philadelphia’s dedicated walk-in clinic for STI testing and treatment. They offer free walk-in STI testing, including HIV, as well as PrEP.
Through HIV testing and considering PrEP, students can take control of their well-being and establish a safer campus environment, prioritizing sexual health for the Temple community.
Chase Gilroy contributed reporting.