UFH HIV/ AIDS Research Group makes a difference in health of local communities

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HIV and AIDS have been with us for a long time and the idea that they present a serious threat to health may have lessened particularly given the prominence given to Covid-19 over the past few years. Against this background, information presented at the recent 24th International AIDS Conference in Montreal, Canada (29 July – 2 August 2022) makes frightening reading. Decreased funding and worsening economic conditions have resulted in less HIV testing, fewer care and prevention programmes, more instances of stocks of medication and other supplies running low or running out and more failures in following up on cases identified. As a result, more patients are now presenting with AIDS and very low counts of the cells that can move through the body finding and destroying bacteria and viruses. This then allows for opportunistic diseases, such as tuberculosis and cryptococcal meningitis, both leading causes of death, to take hold.

Healthcare challenges are always more complex in poor, rural areas and this makes the work of the HIV/ AIDS Research Group in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Fort Hare all the more critical. The location of the University in one of the poorest provinces in the country calls for work that acknowledges the social and economic conditions in which local communities live. The UFH HIV/AIDS Research Group is committed to producing knowledge that addresses local challenges through engagement in research networks, sharing information and fostering collaboration with others.

The newly formed Research group is made up of a number of representatives from the Department of Health, various nongovernmental organisations (NGO) and staff members who are all involved in some area of HIV / AIDS research. The research of members of the group located at UFH focuses on viral load monitoring by professional nurses as well as the dynamics involved in the disclosure of HIV status among adolescents. The team is also investigating the experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the elderly living with HIV as well as the development of a care app for HIV positive pregnant women.

The Research Group in the process of forming a collaboration with Dr Elona Tosca of the University of Cape Town. Dr Tosca has conducted extensive research on the devastating effects of violence on mental health and on adherence to treatment protocols in collaboration with the Accelerate Hub, a group committed to working with adolescents in resource poor contexts in Africa.

Another partnership enjoyed by the Research Group involves the Desmond Tutu Research Foundation’s (DTRF) Dr Andrew Marino. Dr Marino’s focus is on screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and anti-retroviral therapy (ART). The prevalence of tuberculosis (TB) among men in the Amathole District is almost double that which is internationally accepted as a crisis level. Further research undertaken by Dr Marino and the DTRF shows a relationship between mental health (especially depression) and TB rates and has also resulted in a testing innovation particularly suitable for households in poor rural areas. The innovation involves pooling the sputum of all members of a household and conducting a handheld test while in the home itself. If the test is positive, the entire household is asked to go to the clinic as a group.

The need to make the best of limited health services in rural areas also led to the development of a screening tool that reduces demands on the time of professional nurses in primary health clinics. Statistics show that almost half of health care users in the Eastern Cape have mental health needs even though they go to clinics complaining about symptoms associated with other conditions such as high blood pressure. Mental health issues including underlying stress, anxiety or depression can then go undetected and untreated. The innovation involves the introduction of a short screening tool to check for mental health issues. If a potential problem is then identified, nurses can use a more rigorous tool involving thirty questions to probe more deeply. Yet again, the work of the UFH Research Group demonstrates sensitivity to local contexts.

Members of the Research Group also partner with another NGO, BeyondZero, focused on investigating best practices in HIV prevention programmes. Professor Mzi Nduna of the Department of Public Health has extensive experience of working in the field of sexual minorities and adolescent sexual health and brings this in-depth expertise to studies conducted by the Group.

The commitment of researchers at the University of Fort Hare to making a difference in the lives of South Africans, particularly those living in the Eastern Cape, is evident in many of the accounts of studies in this research report. The work of the HIV/AIDS Research Group undoubtedly provides a shining example of this and needs to be applauded loudly.

Article by Helen Bunt - Faculty of Health Sciences

Source: UFH 2021/2022 Research Report