Background: Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) use has remained low among US women while significantly increasing among men who have sex with men. Besides lack of awareness, women face several social and structural barriers in gaining access to and using PrEP.
Methods: Four focus group discussions with 20 HIV-negative women who live in the Washington DC metropolitan area.
Results: The women expressed concerns about social and structural barriers to PrEP use. They were afraid that stigma related to using "HIV medicines" could affect PrEP use as well. They are worried that family and friends may question their reasons for taking anti-retrovirals and suspect that they were HIV-positive. They expected hostile reactions from male partners, including accusations of infidelity and introducing mistrust in their relationships. Communicating with health care providers about sexual matters in general and their need for PrEP in particular were identified as further barriers. Women reported that providers rarely ask about risk behaviors related to HIV acquisition; that short visits hinder establishing a trusting relationship to discuss sensitive matters. They were concerned that disclosure of risk behaviors may result in judgmental responses and harsh treatment from providers. Lastly, women were concerned that PrEP costs, including insurance coverage and copays, would keep PrEP out of their reach. While cognizant of the potential barriers, women were unwavering in their determination to find ways to circumvent challenges to PrEP access.
Conclusion: Social and structural barriers may impede women's access to PrEP despite their own reported interest. Continued efforts to reduce HIV stigma, improve patient-provider relationships and ensure affordability of PrEP may increase the likelihood that women will use this important prevention modality.
Keywords: HIV Prevention; Pre-exposure prophylaxis; Women.