Combating Uganda’s HIV, TB epidemic

Moderated by Rick Badie

The University of Georgia has received a $1.4 million grant to conduct tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS research in Uganda. Today, a UGA professor writes about the importance of the work underway and that will continue in conjunction with university counterparts in Uganda. The second article deals with Atlanta’s HIV/AIDS epidemic — specifically, the importance of family care and support for those diagnosed with the illness.

Combating Uganda’s HIV, TB epidemic

By Chris Whalen

Chances are you know about cancer, because it’s impacted someone you know. This personal connection makes it easy, then, for Americans to identify with their struggles and be sympathetic to efforts to combat cancer.

Few of us, however, know someone with tuberculosis or TB. Thanks to advances in medicine and public health, the disease does not pose a serious health risk to the general population. This isn’t to say the U.S. isn’t vulnerable, as there have been isolated instances of TB in Georgia’s schools, prisons and homeless shelters. In August, an outbreak of drug-resistant TB at the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter in Atlanta prompted calls from elected officials to shut down the facility and raised concerns across the state.

As with any infectious disease, our communities are always mindful of the seriousness of these health threats, but the remarkable job done by our public health professionals in identifying and containing the disease puts us at considerably low risk.

Beyond our borders, however, the story is very different. Among the leading causes of global death and disability, TB is so common in Africa and Asia that it affects the lives of nearly every person. In East Africa alone, more than 50,000 people die each year from the disease. This health crisis is exacerbated in places where epidemics of TB collide with HIV, as individuals with weakened immune systems can contract – and transmit – the highly contagious disease.

Spread by something as simple as a cough, TB can run through an African community quickly, leaving lasting consequences in its wake. Infectious diseases must be contained at their source, limiting the threat of transmission and minimizing the risk of it spreading beyond the initial outbreak source. This is especially true for TB. Since most of the modern cases of TB occur in Africa and Asia, it makes sense for public health institutions to collaborate with countries from these regions to assist with control efforts.

Seven years ago, the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health launched a collaboration with Makerere University, in Kampala, Uganda, to conduct research as well as train future scientists and public health professionals to deal with the epidemics of HIV and TB.

This partnership took a major step forward recently when it received a training grant from the Fogarty International Center, National Institutes of Health. This grant supports Ugandan and U.S. researchers in the fields of TB and HIV, providing them with state-of-the-art training in research methods such as bioinformatics and mathematical modeling.

Through mentored research projects, trainees will apply these methods to understand how and where TB and HIV spread in the community. The students will return to their respective institutions with this new expertise, continuing their research under the mentorship of faculty from each university. With this knowledge, new ways of interrupting the spread can be developed and tested.

Why does this matter?

Infectious diseases do not respect man-made borders. An outbreak of disease in Africa today could spread to the U.S. tomorrow. The events surrounding last year’s Ebola outbreak opened the world’s eyes to the importance of building up a global health infrastructure that can effectively identify, address and contain deadly diseases. To achieve this, we must go to the places where these diseases are most serious and build the necessary capacity to address them. Unless we do this, the infectious disease threats that affect us all will never be resolved.

Chris Whalen is a University of Georgia professor of infectious disease epidemiology.

Replace fear, ignorance about HIV/AIDS

By Leisha McKinley-Beach

With Charlie Sheen’s recent announcement that he is living with HIV, the topic of HIV/AIDS has found its way back into public discourse. So much has changed since the last time the disease was a hot topic.

With proper medical treatment and ample support, a person who is diagnosed today can live a normal, healthy lifespan and is significantly less likely to pass the virus to others. There is also now a pill that can prevent a person from contracting HIV. It’s called PrEP.

Unfortunately, even with these advances, one thing remains: Stigma is one of our biggest challenges to ending HIV. Too many people living with HIV describe a fear of rejection that keeps them from getting the support they need and want from loved ones.

According to a new statewide survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in two Georgians say they have never talked about HIV/AIDS at home, and those who have say it infrequently comes up. The Kaiser survey reports 46 percent of Georgians personally know someone who is living with or has died of HIV/AIDS. Among black residents, 28 percent say they have a family member affected by the disease.

Whether it’s the one you are born into or the one you create, family matters. When people living with HIV can be open with loved ones about their status, it helps them seek and stay in care. Getting treatment is critical to good health outcomes. With the proper medication, an HIV-positive person is less likely to experience depression and other stresses that are often a result of the disease.

“We Are Family” is a new campaign from the Georgia Department of Public Health, the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness and Greater Than AIDS. We here at the Fulton Department of Health, with the DeKalb County Board of Health, are thrilled to bring these important messages to Atlanta as part of our Atlanta Greater Than AIDS initiative. Through billboards and radio and television public announcements, we spotlight the important role played by loved ones in the health and well-being of people with HIV.

Anchored by short, documentary-style videos, the campaign features Georgians from all walks of life living with HIV. Through everyday actions, a mother and her grown son, a college student and his parent, a transgender woman and her sister, and others illustrate how love and support can empower us all in the face of HIV/AIDS.

These family members are there for one another, reminding loved ones to take their meds, checking to see how they are doing, listening without judgment and learning together about ways to live well with HIV. Most importantly, like everyone else, people living with HIV need to hear they are loved, unconditionally. It’s time to replace fear and ignorance with knowledge and empathy. HIV doesn’t spread by sharing a drinking glass, kissing or any other casual contact.

In life, we all face struggles. And as much as we like to think we can do it all by ourselves, it is the love of family and friends that helps us get through. HIV doesn’t just impact the person living with the disease, but also his or her loved ones.

So when you gather with the people you love this holiday season, give those around you the best gift of all — the gift of knowing just how much you support them, no matter what. Go ahead and offer your hugs! After all, isn’t that what family is all about?

To find out more about HIV, including supporting loved ones, and to watch the videos, go to: http://www.greaterthan.org/regions/atlanta/

Leisha McKinley-Beach is the HIV program administrator for the Fulton County Department of Health & Wellness.

 


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