Campus News

Staff Spotlight: Meet Yara Tapia, an Advocate for Efficient HIV Prevention Care Systems

“I want more for my community” – Yara Tapia, Project Specialist

Bokie Muigai June 27, 2023
smiling woman

Speaking to Yara Tapia, it is easy to hear her passion and extensive experience around sexual health advocacy. Tapia is a former HIV testing counsellor who advocates for equity in mental and sexual health. “I want to provide folks with the tools to understand HIV prevention care systems, and for those systems to be flexible when providing services,” she expresses.

Tapia is a project specialist on the HEART: Health Empowerment and Access to Remote TelePrEP initiative. This is a collaborative effort between the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences and community-based organizations in Southern California.Three years ago, she joined USC through Klausner Research Group, a lab headed by Jeffrey D. Klausner, MD, Professor of Population and Public Health Sciences. She worked on Proyecto FACIL: Facilitating Access and Care in the Inland Empire, to analyze HIV prevention efforts across San Bernardino and Riverside.

Pictured: Yara Tapia. Photo courtesy Yara Tapia.

“Our goal was to assess the barriers of accessing HIV prevention services and to determine what the state of California had in place for PrEP public assistance,” she reveals. “One of the things we encountered from that project was the cultural stigma of being on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).”

“We held focus groups, where we talked about machismo, and how this presents itself in male- and Latinx-identifying people. Participants discussed how various cultural factors manifest into feelings of shame when talking to providers about their sexuality,” she reports. Another drawback that was discussed, highlighted the mistrust of government funded services especially among undocumented people. “While the infrastructure is built to support undocumented folks to apply to the PrEP assistance program, they are scared to give out their personal information which they think could be used against them later on,” she advises.

“As a trans Latina myself, I still have a difficult time navigating the complicated systems of care. I can imagine how frustrating it is, to hit a wall every time especially for someone who does not have access to language, or self-advocacy which I am constantly learning,” she remarks.

Other challenges included providers projecting their preconceived biases. “Black, indigenous, and people of color voiced their experience of hyper-sexualization and assumptions of promiscuity, which further reinforce stigma, shame and guilt already embedded in society,” she warns.

“How can we prevent these problems from occurring in clinical settings so that they don’t happen to other patients?” questions Tapia.

The findings from her first study will inform HEART’s mission. Through well connected organizations including REACHLA, QCare+ and Rainbow Pride Youth Alliance, the project hopes to better serve the needs and concerns of various communities. It aims to improve HIV prevention care and streamline the process of getting communities connected to telehealth and PrEP. “We’re trying to implement a comprehensive lens to HIV prevention, incorporating the different pillars that go into a person’s successful connection and retention to PrEP. This encompasses a trauma-informed and patient-centered approach, and tackles racial equity and social development,” she explains.

“In the sociopolitical climate right now, trans rights are being attacked in some states and threatened in others, and this inadvertently has some collateral damage to the work we do. Someone who is being attacked and constantly fearing for their safety and livelihood, is not going to prioritize HIV prevention or get connected to care in any capacity,” she asserts.

Tapia serves as the Co-Chair of the Transgender Caucus for the commission on HIV. When asked about her outlook of her work she responds, “I’m excited about working in a space that utilizes government resources that weren’t as welcoming to myself and my community, to really maximize and leverage resources, and learn how we can continuously improve.”