Oct. 1, 2015
A Virginia Commonwealth University professor has been awarded a nearly $1.5 million grant to expand the Richmond region’s capacity to prevent HIV and substance abuse, particularly among young African-Americans.
Faye Belgrave, Ph.D., a professor in the Health Psychology Program of the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, received the five-year research grant, “Building Capacity for Substance Abuse and HIV Prevention,” from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“HIV continues to be a crisis in the black community, especially among young black adults,” Belgrave said. “One in 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV and one in 32 black women will be diagnosed with HIV at the current prevalence rate. So you can see that HIV continues to be a huge problem, despite the research and advances in programs to prevent HIV.”
While the number of new HIV infections has fallen over the past five years, the African-American community continues to be disproportionately affected. Black women have HIV at a rate 20 times higher than white women, while black men are six times more likely to have HIV than white men.
The grant is targeted at young adults, ages 18 to 24, because the period of emerging adulthood is marked by a higher rate of drug use, including marijuana, alcohol and tobacco. At the same time, drug use is correlated with increases in sexual risk behaviors within that age group.
As part of the grant, Belgrave’s team will partner with two nonprofit community organizations: Fan Free Clinic, which has long provided HIV testing and prevention services, and Nia Inc. of Greater Richmond, a faith-based organization that provides a variety of HIV/AIDS interventions.
“What we want to do is use these community organizations to really target other community agencies and get these other agencies involved in substance abuse and HIV prevention,” Belgrave said. “Not to say that a lot of this is not already ongoing, but when we talk about building capacity, we are talking about building more of an organized, integrated effort so that we’re not duplicating services.”
Fan Free Clinic will provide rapid HIV and Hepatitis C testing for the project, as well as risk reduction counseling, access to condoms and barriers, and harm reduction material for injection drug users.
This project will give us an opportunity to expand the work we do in communities most affected by both HIV and Hepatitis C.
“Right now in Virginia, we can estimate that 13 percent of those living with HIV don’t know it and about 50 percent of those living with Hepatitis C do not know it,” said Cristina Kincaid, director of health outreach for Fan Free Clinic. “And among young people who inject drugs, 72 percent do not know their Hepatitis C status.”
Kincaid said the team’s goal is to educate and test individuals to make sure they know their status so they can reduce their risk for transmission of both HIV and HCV, especially among young African-Americans.
“Our hope is that the work carried out through this grant will increase status awareness for both HIV and HCV and provide lifesaving information to those most affected by both illnesses,” she said. “This project will give us an opportunity to expand the work we do in communities most affected by both HIV and Hepatitis C. Currently, we go out into the community and conduct street outreach, education and testing services, and we are always looking for ways to continue to meet people where they are, both literally and figuratively.”
Lindsay Bryant, project manager for Nia Inc. of Greater Richmond, said her organization is excited to work in collaboration with VCU and Fan Free Clinic to increase capacity to prevent HIV within the faith community and throughout the Richmond region.
“This [will allow] us to involve African-American college students in evidence-based and substance abuse prevention curriculums,” Bryant said. “This will be even more effective because we will use existing groups and friendships of the students. Allowing them be collaborative partners as we meet them where they are and focus on substance abuse, HIV prevention and education, including HIV testing and counseling.”
The grant has five specific objectives:
- Establish integrated HIV and substance abuse prevention services in Richmond and at VCU for the target population by linking organizations and entities that provide these services through the establishment of a work group/advisory council.
- Improve capacity within Richmond and VCU for increased access to HIV and substance abuse education and prevention services.
- Implement gender and culturally appropriate evidence-based prevention interventions for men and women.
- Carry out substance abuse and HIV awareness and education activities within targeted catchment areas in Richmond and at VCU.
- Increase HIV and HCV testing and counseling.
More broadly, Belgrave said she hopes the project encourages young people in the Richmond community to see HIV testing as normal and routine.
“Everybody should be tested, but at least every young adult between the ages of 18 and 30 should engage in routine testing,” she said. “If it becomes routine, if it becomes normative, then people are not thinking, ‘I’m being tested because I engaged in risk behavior.’ That’s my goal.”
Belgrave also hopes it reduces the stigma of HIV.
“I would like to see the discussion of HIV to become more normative,” she said, “so that people see HIV for exactly what it is — a chronic illness.”
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