Kareem Greene believes the once daily pill to prevent HIV has kept him virus-free on at least two occasions. It is a fact he shared candidly during an outreach event at the LGBTQ Center in Durham the last Friday in June.
“I know two former partners who are living with HIV,” Greene said. “But I have remained HIV-negative and I owe that to PrEP.”
Greene, who participated in the clinical trial at UNC that proved Truvada could be used as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP to guard against HIV infection, now educates the community about this option as a member of the ROPE Team. ROPE, which stands for Research, Outreach, Education and Prevention, is the advocacy arm of the UNC Global HIV Treatment and Prevention Clinical Trials Unit.
“We are the bridge to the community,” said Noshima Darden-Tabb, MSW, LCSW, community engagement manager. “The goal is through our visibility, community programs and partnerships that we increase knowledge about research and reduce stigma, leading to more people wanting to be involved in research.”
Launched in the fall of 2015, the ROPE Team is made up of ambassadors who have undergone training on the unit’s prevention studies, PrEP, research and confidentiality. Ambassadors talk with people in their social networks who may be at risk for HIV as well as host community events. The ROPE Team attended Out! Raleigh in May and organized a drag show at the LGBTQ Center in Durham in June.
ROPE Team member Kenneth Freeman emceed the drag show. Like Greene, he participated in the PrEP trial and remains committed to keeping his community HIV-free.
“I’ve lost 20 people to HIV,” Freeman said. “Black, gay men are especially affected by this disease. I am a black, gay man and it makes sense for me to approach my community about this. I have a dog in this fight, too. I can say ‘I’m just like you.’”
The event at the LGBTQ Center mixed fun with education. During breaks between drag show contestants dancing and lip-syncing to Tina Turner and Prince songs were announcements about free HIV testing. ROPE Team member JT Williams gave an overview of the current HIV prevention trials at UNC, including a long-acting injection and an infusion of antibodies.
“I’m enrolled in a prevention trial; so when I talk with people about the research options available to them, I am more relatable and credible,” Williams said. “HIV doesn’t discriminate. But through unity and community, we can win this fight.”
The ROPE Team is having an impact. Five people inquired about being pre-screened for an HIV prevention trial during the drag show. And Darden-Tabb said approximately 8-10 people have joined research studies after attending a ROPE Team event over the past year and a half.
“I certainly believe that we have created a culture among the members, and this has fostered conversations about HIV research and general HIV prevention among ambassadors and the community at outreach events as well as in their individual social networks,” Darden-Tabb said. “I believe these conversations have decreased stigma about HIV testing and research with those we have engaged. We have received a lot of positive praise for just ‘being there.’ People are generally grateful that UNC participates in Out! Raleigh, PRIDE and other community events.”