OSDH launches Rapid Start and PrEP program to help end HIV epidemic in Oklahoma

The Shawnee News-Star

In a continued effort to battle the HIV epidemic, the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Service is launching a new initiative designed to get a person newly diagnosed with HIV into immediate care and treatment.

The Rapid Start and PrEP program is a key component of the state’s involvement in the federal Ending the HIV Epidemic Campaign as Oklahoma was identified as one of seven states with significant risk of rural HIV transmission. In 2019, Oklahoma had 326 new HIV diagnoses, with a total of 6,879 people living with HIV. Public health officials have a growing concern for late testers, which are persons having an AIDS diagnosis within three months of the HIV diagnosis. In 2019, 51 Oklahomans with newly diagnosed HIV were late testers.

“This is concerning because the person likely went an extended period with an undiagnosed case of HIV,” said OSDH Rapid Start Nurse Manager Ivonna Mims. “Early testing and immediate follow-up treatment is essential to managing a person’s health and preventing further spread of the disease.”

The goal of the Rapid Start program is to identify a new HIV diagnosis as early as possible and start the client on antiretroviral therapy within one to two weeks of diagnosis. Terrainia Harris, interim service director for the OSDH Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Service, said the medication is proven to decrease the HIV viral load and delay or prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS. Additionally, a person with an undetectable viral load cannot further spread the virus through sex. This concept is known through the national campaign of Undetectable=Untransmittable (U=U).

“The Rapid Start program provides persons newly diagnosed with HIV expedited linkage to care including medications, lab testing, counseling and case management,” said Harris. “We want to ensure we are meeting the client where they are and addressing all of the challenges that accompany an HIV diagnosis.”

In addition to Rapid Start, the agency is also including a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) program designed to allow qualifying clients access to medications proven to prevent acquiring HIV. PrEP is recommended for people who test negative for HIV and are at risk of being exposed to HIV through high-risk sexual practices, injection drug use, or clients who have partners confirmed with HIV. Clients will be evaluated by a nurse practitioner as part of a comprehensive prevention program which includes routine three-month follow-up, lab work, STD screening, prevention education, condoms and medication.

The Rapid Start and PrEP programs are available to all county health departments, medical providers and community-based organizations contracted with the Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Service. For more information about either program or other aspects of sexual health, visit shhr.health.ok.gov or call (405) 271-4636.