UConn Empowering the HIV Community

Two NIH-funded study programs at UConn School of Medicine are studying ways to promote HIV testing and to improve the lives of people living with HIV in Connecticut, especially the unemployed and women.

Dr. Carla Rash at UConn Health received $3.4M from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to pursue the PROMOTE study. Drs. Kristyn Zajac, Sheila Alessi, Kevin Dieckhaus, and Martin Cherniak are co-investigators on the study as well. This study aims to help unemployed persons living with HIV obtain jobs. The researchers are counseling HIV-positive patients interested in seeking employment through weekly job-related activities.

“Many unemployed persons give up before they obtain employment. We hope that breaking down the complex process of job searching into weekly manageable goals will prevent people from feeling discouraged or overwhelmed as they seek employment.” shared Rash. “Also, we know that employment is strongly connected to health and wellbeing. We hope that our patients benefit from the program in many ways well beyond job attainment.”

In addition to helping members of the HIV community gain successful employment, the aim of the study is to also compare the possible benefit of weekly job-related activity and the same counseling to the same intervention with the addition of small financial incentives for completing the weekly job-related activities.

Knowledge of one’s HIV status is crucial for rapid access to treatment and reducing its spread. That’s why UConn School of Medicine’s Dr. Kristyn Zajac is using her new $2.8M five-year R01 grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) to investigate better ways for increasing HIV testing intervention in African-American and Latina women, as well as women living in poverty through the EMPOWER program. Drs. Rash, Alessi, and Dieckhaus, are co-investigators of this study.

These women are disproportionately at risk for contracting HIV and their risk of infection is increased further if they have other risk factors, including substance use, history of intimate partner violence, and homelessness.

“Multiple systemic and structural barriers get in the way of women getting tested for HIV,” stresses Zajac. “Approximately one third of African American women and over half of Latina women have never been tested for HIV and, unfortunately, HIV rates are highest in these groups and among women living in poverty. Empowering women to get tested is so critical for early diagnosis and treatment of HIV and, ultimately, for helping to stop the spread of HIV. We hope to find the best ways to increase HIV testing rates for high-risk African-American, Latina, and women living in poverty.”

The study is testing the effectiveness of HIV testing reinforcement interventions for high-risk women by trained community-based providers. Additionally, it is testing the approach of paid incentives to further assist with initial HIV testing, and repeat testing every six months.

To conduct the study, UConn’s research team is partnering with multiple community-based organizations, several of which are non-traditional providers of HIV services such as domestic violence agencies and homeless shelters etc., to address systemic and structural issues that may be barriers to HIV testing.