From the Journals

Prophylactic HIV treatment in female STI patients is rare



Clinical encounters with female patients presenting with a STI offer a key opportunity for health care professionals to identify and prevent HIV through testing and prophylactic treatment, reported Kirk D. Henny, PhD, and colleagues of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an effort to quantify HIV testing rates as well as the rate of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) among women with gonorrhea or syphilis, Dr. Henny and his colleagues performed a multivariate logistic regression analysis of 13,074 female patients aged 15-64 diagnosed with a STI in the absence of HIV. Data was pulled in 2017 from the IBM MarketScan commercial and Medicaid insurance databases, and the research was published in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Medicaid patients were more likely to be tested for HIV

A total of 3,709 patients with commercial insurance were diagnosed with gonorrhea and 1,696 with syphilis. Among those with Medicaid, 6,172 were diagnosed with gonorrhea and 1,497 with syphilis. Medicaid patients diagnosed with either STI were more likely to be tested for HIV than the commercially insured patients. With an adjusted prevalence ratio, patients commercially insured with had either STI were more likely to be tested for HIV than patients who had no STI. Prophylactic treatment rates were similar in both insurance groups: 0.15% in the commercial insurance group and 0.26% in the Medicaid group. No patient from either group who was diagnosed with gonorrhea or syphilis and subsequently tested for HIV received pre-exposure prophylactic (PrEP) treatment.

STI diagnosis is a significant indicator of future HIV

Female patients diagnosed with either STI are more likely to contract HIV, the researchers noted. They cautioned that their findings of low HIV testing rates and the absence of prophylactic treatment means that “these missed opportunities for health care professionals to intervene with female patients diagnosed with gonorrhea or syphilis might have contributed to HIV infections that could have been averted.”

The researchers also pointed out that, in a recent analysis of pharmacy data, prophylactic prescribing for female patients with clinical indications for PrEP was 6.6%, less than one-third the coverage provided to male patients.

Future research should target understanding “individual and contextual factors associated with low HIV testing” and PrEP treatment in female patients, especially those with STIs, Dr. Henny and his colleagues advised.

In a separate interview, Constance Bohon, MD FACOG, observed: “The authors present data to document the low incidence of pre-exposure prophylaxis in women who are at substantial risk of acquiring HIV and possible causes for the low utilization of this treatment.” It is important to identify barriers to diagnosis, counseling, and treatment, she advised.

“Multicenter studies to determine the best methodologies to improve the identification, management, and treatment of these at-risk women need to be done, and the conclusions disseminated to health care providers caring for women,” Dr. Bohon said.

PrEP is an important, simple strategy for reducing HIV transmission

“Pre-exposure prophylaxis has been demonstrated to decrease HIV acquisition in those at risk by up to 90% when taken appropriately,” and yet prescribing rates are extremely low (2%-6%) in at-risk women and especially women of color. These disparities have only grown over time, with prophylactic prescriptions for women at 5% between 2012 and 2017, compared with 68% for men, Catherine S. Eppes, MD, MPH, and Jennifer McKinney, MD, MPH, said in a related editorial commenting on the Research Letter by Dr. Henny and colleagues in Obstetrics & Gynecology (2020 Dec;136[6]:1080-2).

Given the abundant research demonstrating the importance and ease of prescribing PrEP, the question remains: “why does preexposure prophylaxis uptake remain so low, especially for women and women of color? There are three important issues about preexposure prophylaxis raised by this study: the research gap, the implementation gap, and the effect of systemic racism and bias,” noted Dr. Eppes and Dr. McKinney.

Women constitute a significant portion of the population that would benefit from HIV-prevention strategies, yet they continue to be excluded from research, they noted. “Much focus on research into barriers and implementation interventions for preexposure prophylaxis have focused on men who have sex with men and transgender women,” the authors of the editorial wrote.

Most women eligible for treatment would be willing to consider it if they were aware of the option, but numerous studies have cited a lack of awareness, especially among high-risk women of color in the United States, Dr. Eppes and Dr. McKinney noted.

Clinicians also need to add it to their growing checklist of mandatory appointment discussion topics, the editorialists said. “We propose standardized inclusion of preexposure prophylaxis counseling during reproductive healthcare visits. This could be aided through an electronic medical record-based best practice advisory alert. … Standardized order sets with the medication and laboratory studies necessary for safe monitoring could facilitate ease of incorporating into routine visits,” they suggested.

“Preexposure prophylaxis is extremely effective in preventing HIV, is safe, and is the only prevention method that leaves control entirely in the hands of the female partner. As a specialty, we have a responsibility to make sure our patients know about this option,” the editorialists concluded.

The authors had no financial disclosures to report. Dr. Bohon had no conflicts of interest to report.

SOURCE: Henny KD et al. Obstet Gynecol. 2020 Dec;136(6):1083-5.

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