U.S.-funded HIV research projects underway

Several research projects dealing with HIV prevention and treatment are underway in Arkansas, adding to an influx of federal dollars for related work in the state.

While the projects are not affiliated with a national program to end new HIV infections, which targets Arkansas, they are contributing to stepped-up efforts against the disease.

In September, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences announced that researcher Latunja Sockwell had received a five-year, $2.5 million federal grant to work on an HIV and hepatitis C prevention project.

Focused on black Arkansans with a history of criminal justice involvement and substance abuse, the work with Little Rock nonprofit Better Community Development will offer HIV and hepatitis C education and increase screening.

Sockwell said it's an outgrowth of similar work geared toward women, and its programming will be tailored by participants' gender, such as training on negotiation over using condoms.

"It was important for me to teach, and be able to empower other women to know their status, have conversations with their partners, take some of the shame out of talking about sex," Sockwell said.

"As women, we feel like we can't have some of those conversations."

Program participants will get safe-sex kits and a boost to their sex-ed knowledge, which can be lacking in the state, said Ashley Young, program manager at Better Community Developers.

"We have people who walk in here who have never had an HIV test before, because they're scared," Young said.

"[With this project], we're having a conversation with you and telling you what the facts are, [and] it's like, 'OK, can I take it now?'"

Sockwell said she anticipates a bump in Arkansas infection rates as HIV testing becomes commonplace, especially in the state's rural areas.

In a different federally funded study, Nickolas Zaller of UAMS' public health school is at work at Pulaski County's jail, trying to link people who are at risk of HIV with pre-exposure prophylaxis medication, or PrEP.

"It's kind of mixed" as to whether people are familiar with the drug to prevent HIV infection, he said. Challenges for that project have included getting people to disclose their HIV risk factors, explaining PrEP and encouraging its continued use.

"A lot of folks, you know, when they get out of correctional facilities, health is pretty low on their priority list," compared with housing, getting a job and rejoining their families, he said.

From institutions outside the state, a National Institutes of Health-funded project involving Arkansas is led by Brown University School of Public Health associate professor Amy Nunn, who is a Little Rock native.

With research partner Pamela Foster, Nunn's one-year study will encourage churches in black communities in Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi to partner with "safety-net health centers" in HIV hot spots.

Viewed with skepticism by scientists and funders in the past, projects with faith groups and clergy are gaining support and have been successful in some of her other work, Nunn said.

"There's finally a lot of interest and recognition that if you want to make a difference in the lives of African-Americans in the South, you really do need to work with churches," she said.

"Finally I think the federal government is on board."

A Section on 01/13/2020