Fit for Print: A commercial revolution

By : Steve Blanchard
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I hate Big Pharma advertisements. So much so that I try to entertain myself when they interrupt my favorite shows. I have this annoying habit of making light of the commercial names of these products. Eucrisa? Latuda?

They sound like contestants on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”The acting in these ads also makes me chuckle. But recently, an ad had a very different impact on me. While watching television via Hulu recently, an ad played for “the pill.”

But this message was very clear—this wasn’t about the birth control pills, this was about Truvada; the drug that lowers the risk of contracting HIV through sex.

I think it took until the next commercial break for my brain to fully register what I saw. This is an actual high-budget commercial for a ground-breaking prescription drug that directly prevents HIV infection. It features members of the LGBTQ community talking directly to the camera about protecting themselves against the disease that used to be a death sentence just 30 years ago.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was a very big deal. HIV prevention medication is finally a part of the mainstream conversation and talked about like any other big pharma advancement.

We’ve come a long way.

The revolution that is Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and Truvada isn’t necessarily news to the LGBTQ community. Several years ago I wrote a cover story for this newspaper on Truvada, which was rightly touted as a new miracle drug. There were a lot of questions and editorially, it was time to introduce readers to this new line of defense.

I remember that very few people were familiar with it and even the professionals in the HIV/AIDS arena weren’t 100 percent sure of its impact. Some were suspicious of its supposed success rate and they were reluctant to show too much excitement. Despite the initial success rate being so high, many were cautious to declare it the next big step in the fight against HIV.

Time has shown that Truvada does work. Of course, it’s important to know that other safe-sex practices are still highly encouraged when using it. Condoms are always recommended and regular HIV testing every three months is required to keep the prescription. But this new ad shows that the conversation has expanded beyond LGBTQ community centers and World AIDS Day commemorations. Talk of active HIV prevention now appears in America’s living rooms.

It’s a huge, bold step. But it is just that—one step.

Even though it’s starting to fade, the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS is still very real in every community. The newest stigma has shifted to battling the attitudes around those who take the appropriate steps to protect themselves.

Truvada shaming is still a very prominent problem.

I am not ashamed to say that in the period of my life leading up to me meeting my husband, I was on Truvada. I read about it, learned about its side effects and approached my doctor about a prescription. He was surprised to learn that I knew almost as much about it as he did, and he gladly wrote my prescription. With the help of insurance, the daily pill was virtually free and I was on it for more than a year.

I am not a fan of taking medicine, whether it’s cough syrup or a strong prescription to battle the flu. This was the first time I had ever asked a doctor for a specific prescription.

It wasn’t something I broadcast, but the few times it did come up in conversation I was surprised by the responses of some friends and acquaintances. It seemed that rather than hearing a statement about my proactive actions of protecting myself, many saw an opportunity to joke about my perceived lack of moral character.

I was jokingly called a “Truvada Whore” more than once and I heard the term directed at many others who had also decided to protect themselves.

The most surprising reaction came from a friend who was HIV-positive. He talked about the difficulties of taking daily medication and couldn’t understand why I would want to take a daily pill when I didn’t have a specific medical reason to do so. When I told him that the reason for my prescription was to avoid the exact scenario he was in, it didn’t have the impact that I had hoped.

It is wonderful that we are finally having an open and honest conversation about PrEP with the entire population rather than just within our own community. The more people know about protecting themselves the better. If our goal is to decrease HIV infections or to eradicate it all together, a commercial like the one I watched is one of the best weapons available.

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