Imagine a pill that you take every day to prevent HIV. You don’t have to imagine. It exists, and it has for some time. Those in the know often refer to this pill by its brand name—Truvada—manufactured by Gilead Sciences and approved by the FDA in 2012. Since its launch in the U.S., Gilead has supported organizations that are promoting the drug and in June 2018, the company launched its own U.S.-based marketing campaign to help drive awareness and uptake of PrEP. While reports from the CDC indicate that more than one million Americans could benefit from PrEP, only 167,000 people in the U.S. are currently taking the daily pill.
Commonly referred to as PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, the orally administered pill is now being rolled out by ministries of health in sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on targeting individuals who are at the greatest risk: adolescent girls and young women, men who have sex with men, and female sex workers, among them.
But launching a new HIV prevention product among at-risk groups who may not perceive their risk or be aware of their health options, is no easy feat.
Those working to promote health products in the private or public health sectors know that it is a complex, resource-intensive challenge that requires teams of technical experts. In the private sector, for example, planning for product introduction begins well before the product is even approved. It’s at this point that companies invest in market research, strategic planning, segmentation, branding, stakeholder engagement, and more—so when and if the product is approved, no time is wasted in getting health workers trained, advocates engaged, and end users aware of and ready for product trial through demand creation communications.
Yet, often in the public health sector, governments and NGOs lack the budgets, time, and capacity to develop strategic communications to create demand for life-saving health products like PrEP. We know this not only from observation, but also from speaking to health professionals working to promote PrEP and asking critical questions about the best way to roll out PrEP in their settings.
That is where the PrEP Communications Accelerator comes in. The Accelerator was created by the OPTIONS Consortium, of which McCann Global Health has served as the strategic communications partner since 2013. Designed to help countries move from PrEP potential to PrEP impact, OPTIONS is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in partnership with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The Consortium, led by FHI 360, AVAC, and Wits RHI, works to expedite and sustain access to antiretroviral-based HIV prevention products like PrEP through providing technical assistance and capacity building services to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They do this by using a systems approach to identify and address needs and gaps along the value chain for PrEP–including product approval, planning and budgeting, appropriate delivery platforms, demand creation and user uptake, and program monitoring and evaluation.
The PrEP Communications Accelerator hones in on the demand side of the equation, helping countries accelerate their launch planning for PrEP by synthesizing research and providing strategies and tools to develop insight-driven demand creation campaigns that help position PrEP in a culturally relevant and meaningful way to end users.
The most unique feature of the PrEP Communications Accelerator is the Communications Fast Tracker, which gives users access to downloadable audience-specific demand creation strategies for populations most at risk for HIV. Accelerator users can select from six populations: adolescent girls and young women (AGYW), men who have sex with men (MSM), female sex workers (FSW), people who inject drugs (PWID), serodiscordant couples (SDC), and the general population; and four settings: national, sub-national, community or clinic. From there, they receive a customized communications strategy, including suggested media channels and communication tactics based on available evidence about the population and setting.
The PrEP Communications Accelerator also includes audience profiles for at-risk groups, giving a high-level, aggregated assessment of market research about end users that informs communications planning.
To develop the PrEP Communications Accelerator, OPTIONS engaged continuously with NGOs and national health ministries, as well as PrEP experts and end user populations, speaking to individuals across Kenya, Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and the U.S. throughout the design and development process. Bespoke market research was conducted in Kenya, to inform audience-profiling and strategy development, and over 200 resources were reviewed in total– giving the OPTIONS communications specialists a thorough overview of the information needed to assist stakeholders in their PrEP demand creation efforts.
While not a panacea for PrEP demand creation in sub-Saharan Africa, the PrEP Communications Accelerator is a user-friendly guide that gives health professionals a head start—allowing them to explore questions and answers, best practices, and technical support while they navigate their PrEP communications planning.
“By equipping healthcare practitioners, researchers, NGOs, health ministries, and other stakeholders with valuable strategic information, the Accelerator fast-tracks planning and insight to save time and resources. The resource is both highly in-depth and applicable to anyone launching a PrEP program or communication effort,” said Kristine Torjesen, Project Director, OPTIONS Consortium, FHI 360.
Looking ahead, the PrEP Communications Accelerator is expanding–growing to incorporate case studies, planning tools, and examples of PrEP communications throughout the world, and—with time—collecting important lessons on how best to support country actors taking on the critical work of connecting people to products that will help end HIV for good.