Chicago promotes safe-sex, HIV prevention program

By Ruojing Liu

A coalition of Chicago-based organizations recently rolled out a new city-wide campaign to raise awareness of an HIV prevention program of taking a prescription-only pill once every day.

The program, called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, aims at people who are at high risk of contracting HIV as a way to significantly reduce the risk of infection by taking a drug called Truvada.

Truvada was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2012 and was adopted by the U.S. Public Health Service’s new guidelines in May 2014. Studies show that PrEP reduces the risk of HIV infection from sex by more than 90 percent when used properly and also has a 99 percent prevention rate. The pill is considered as a new tool to prevent HIV transmission, especially for people who don’t always use condoms.

The recent campaign in Chicago called PrEP4Love focuses on key Chicago communities that are especially vulnerable to HIV, including young gay and bisexual black men, transgender women of color, and black heterosexual women, said Jim Pickett, director of prevention advocacy and gay men’s health at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, who oversees the campaign.

“There’s high vulnerability of HIV in these communities and correspondingly low uptake on PrEP,” Pickett said, “so we wanted to make sure we were talking to them directly.”

The campaign includes four advertisements with photos of four pairs of people showing intimacy and the same tagline — “One pill. Once a day. Protect against HIV.”

“The point is that with PrEP you can be intimate, you can connect, and you can have the sexual intimacy you want without worrying about HIV,” Pickett said, “so HIV doesn’t need to be in the picture. We want this to be a sex-positive campaign that embraces pleasure and connection.”

The campaign was launched February 1 by Chicago PrEP Working Group, a coalition of about 150 organizations led by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Public Health. It is the first time a collective, city-wide effort to promote the program was initiated instead of individual organizations’ own version.

Besides the pro bono and volunteer services from four creative agencies including Leo Burnett, Starcom, Spark and Razorfish, the coalition is spending $350,000 on photography, printing and placement of the advertisements.

Included in the campaign are 800 interior bus and train cards inside the Red and Green lines, 100 paper advertisements, 100 digital monitor advertisements in CTA stations and a renovated heated bus shelter at State and Late. Online smart advertisements, which could show up on a computer based on the browser history, social media — like Facebook and Instagram — are also part of the campaign.

The campaign also organizes monthly live events to involve local communities, where information about PrEP are weaved into performances and entertainment. On the first event February 8, PrEP providers and people who were using PrEP were invited to share information about the program, and a photo booth was provided for participants to take their own photos using the PrEP4Love advertisement format and to post them on social media. The next such event will be held on March 9.

“Just because (the) FDA approved something on one day doesn’t mean all of a sudden everyone has it the next day; it’s a lot of effort,” as Pickett observed, uptakes of PrEP has relatively been low since the FDA has approved the drug. “New innovations take a long time to get into practice,” he added.

However, the goal is not to get everyone on board for the medication.

“We want everyone to know about PrEP,” Pickett said, “then you can make an informed decision.”

To Pickett, PrEP is an important alternative to protected sex besides condoms. But it is not just a prescription and a pill every day, and it requires seeing a doctor four times a year. And it also requires frequent engagement with the health care system and dealing with the complexity of health insurance.

Although the outcome of the campaign is still too early to tell, Pickett said the coalition is collecting information about how many people were seeing the advertisements online. They expected an online impression, including the official website and online advertising, of about 70 million. They will also be able to collect data from the Chicago PrEP phone line, a phone service designed to assist people in accessing PrEP, including linkages to health care providers across the city, health insurance and low-cost or free medication.

The first round of the campaign will end in CTA stations at the end of this month and online in mid-April. The Chicago PrEP Working Group is also planning a second wave of the same campaign in different locations in the city this summer.

Photo at top: Ads on CTA trains show models’ bodies enprinted with words connected with HIV, including contract, transmit, spread and catch, and paired with intimacy.(Ruojing Liu/MEDILL)