How Social Media Ads Are Hurting HIV Prevention


A drug used for HIV prevention has been featured in ads on social media that seek plaintiffs for lawsuits regarding harmful side effects. Now, a study from the Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH) says those ads are undermining efforts to get HIV prevention info to those who need it most.

The study appears in AIDS and Behavior. Professors Christian Grov and Denis Nash of CUNY SPH, Ph.D. student Alexa B. D’Angelo, and Drew Westmoreland, a research scientist at the Institute for Implementation Science in Population Health (CUNY ISPH) were authors on the study. Grov, Nash, and D’Angelo are also researchers at CUNY ISPH.

There is still no cure for HIV, and no immunization. But pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, drugs like tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (brand name Truvada) can stop HIV from taking hold in the body. When used for HIV prevention, Truvada has minimal side effects, and those that do appear have been shown to go away once the patient stops taking the pill, the authors say.

The ads, which started appearing on Facebook and Instagram in 2019, were purchased by personal injury lawyers or associated groups, and seek Truvada users. Activists say that the wording and images used in the ads make it seem as though serious side effects such as bone and kidney problems are more common than they really are.

The researchers surveyed 2,078 HIV-negative people, including trans men, trans women who have sex with men, and cis men, and showed them examples of the ads. Nearly 60% said they’d already seen the ads on their social media accounts. 27.7% said the ads would have a negative impact on their decision to start taking PrEP, and 22.1% said they were already taking it but the ads might influence them to stop. 38.2% of participants reported that the ads made them think PrEP wasn’t safe.

Additionally, the researchers found that Black, Latinx and/or multiracial people were most likely to be impacted by the ads. This is even more of a concern when considering that those same groups are disproportionately affected by HIV.

“Our findings highlight the urgency for accurate and balanced messaging on the benefits and risks of PrEP,” Grov said, “so that individuals can make informed choices about whether PrEP is right for them.”


Beyond SUM

Work By

Denis Nash (Distinguished Professor, Epidemiology and Biostatistics) | Profile 1
Christian Grov (Professor, Department Chair, Community Health and Social Sciences) | Profile 1

Bonus Content

"Ads for PrEP drug lawsuits hinder uptake and adherence, study suggests" (Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy)