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Changing the prevailing attitude about AIDS, gender and reproductive health in southern Africa

Changing the prevailing attitude about AIDS, gender and reproductive health in southern Africa

5015384107_517a74d0b5_zDuring the 1990s and early 2000s, HIV/AIDS pummeled through southern Africa killing thousands. Although the epidemic has abated somewhat, the disease is still spreading through certain communities, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) population.

In Zimbabwe, where homosexuality is illegal and President Robert Mugabe has actively spoken out against the LGBTI community, health-care provider Caroline Maposphere works behind the scenes, trying to change the prevailing attitudes and laws without sparking a homophobic backlash like that in Uganda. Maposphere, who serves as a nurse, midwife, chaplain and gender advocate, will visit the Stanford campus this evening to discuss her efforts.

“She tells great stories about how you deal with the kind of social and community issues that lie around HIV prevention and gay and lesbian health issues in a very homophobic and resource-poor environment,” said David Katzenstein, MD, a Stanford infectious disease specialist who met Maposphere in 1992 while working on the Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention Project.

Preventing the spread of HIV in Zimbabwe isn’t as simple as handing out condoms or launching an education campaign, although those are key strategies, said Maposphere. The nation is poor, has few health-care facilities of any kind and LGBTI rights are non-existent. The traditional southern Africa culture view of homosexually, which was sometimes attributed to witchcraft, further complicates the issue.

“It’s very difficult to reach out with services to groups that are not coming out in the open,” Maposphere said. “We try to reach out and remove some of the barriers through discussion rather than being outright confrontational.”

Maposphere often encounters LGBTI individuals who feel they have been shunned by God and have been excluded from their churches in the predominantly Christian nation. In an effort to offer spiritual guidance as well as health care, she earned a college degree in theology and hopes to explore the religious aspects of her work while at Stanford.

In addition, Maposphere is planning to connect with gay-rights activists here and learn effective methods for countering homophobia in her native country. “I’m very hopeful that things will change,” she said.

The free discussion begins at 7:30 PM in the Vaden Education Center on the second floor of the health center on campus.

Previously: Remembering Kenyan statesman and Stanford medical school alumnus Njoroge Mungai, In poorest countries, increase in midwives could save lives of mothers and their babiesSex work in Uganda: Risky business and In Uganda, offering support for those born with indeterminate sex
Photo by Remi Kaupp

Global Health, History, HIV/AIDS, Infectious Disease

A doctor’s dilemma: to help or hold back from treating dangerous infections

If, like me, you’ve wondered why a doctor or nurse would decide to volunteer to help patients with often fatal infectious diseases like Ebola, The New York Times Magazine ran an essay today by Stanford physician and author Abraham Verghese, MD, MACP, in which he addresses, among other issues, the tension for clinicians between self-preservation and the impulse to help.

We doctors feel the pull. But each of us has reasons to stay back, reasons that get bigger as we age

He begins with his time treating patients in a hospital in India, detailing his encounters with tuberculosis, malaria, and filariasis among other diseases, but his description of his fear of and his reflections of his encounter with his first rabies patient is poignant:

I felt terribly sorry for this man who was old enough to be my father. Squatting by his mat, I was ashamed of my earlier fear and hesitation. I was glad to spend some time with him. By the next morning he was comatose and convulsing. By nightfall, he’d transcended the mortal world.

He  goes on to discuss his work with HIV patients in the 1980s, and the fear that surrounded the disease at the time. Many physicians donned full protective gear, even though researchers had determined, even in the early days of the epidemic, that the disease wasn’t spread via casual contact. Verghese connects these fears to current fears about Ebola, but doesn’t blame physicians who are cautious. He also documents his own impulses:

I have the urge to sign up, to head to Liberia or Sierra Leone; the call for doctors seems personally addressed to me. When I tell my mother, who is in her 90s, that I am thinking of volunteering in West Africa, she clutches my hand and says: “Oh, no, no, no. Don’t go!” I’m secretly pleased.

….

We doctors feel the pull. But each of us has reasons to stay back, reasons that get bigger as we age: children, partners, parents, grants.

Verghese captures the conundrum facing doctors and nurses who want to help, but who are – for a  variety of reasons – pulled away.

Previously: Ebola: This outbreak is differentStanford physician shares his story of treating Ebola patients in Liberia and Dr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients

Ebola, Events, HIV/AIDS, Infectious Disease, Public Health, Stanford News

Dr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients

Dr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients

The photo says it all: A very slender, ailing man sits on the floor with his head bent, completely alone in the dark in what used to be an Ebola treatment center in West Africa.

Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, the brilliant physician and humanitarian, flashed the photo on a screen to a rapt Stanford audience last Friday to show the emaciated state of health care systems in West Africa, incapable now of treating the most basic ailments.

Every time someone dies, it’s a failure to diagnose and deliver the imperfect tools we have

“The primary determinant of outcomes is the strength of health care systems. And if this is what ETU’s (Ebola Treatment Units) look like, there are going to be a lot of fatalities,” he told the crowd of some 400 people at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “We should be saving most of these patients. Every time someone dies, it’s a failure to diagnose and deliver the imperfect tools we have.”

But this vast inequity in care need not exist, said Farmer, MD, PhD, a Harvard professor. He pointed to examples from his own experience, in which he and the group he co-founded, Partners in Health, helped build robust health systems in Haiti and more recently, Rwanda, saving thousands of lives.

Farmer started working in Haiti while he was a student at Harvard Medical School nearly 30 years ago. In 1998, during the peak of the AIDS epidemic there, he established the HIV Equity Initiative, which relied on community health workers to visit the homes of patients daily to check on their status and ensure that they took their antiretroviral and/or tuberculosis medications. The approach proved remarkably successful, as people rose from their deathbeds to return to normal, functioning lives.

More recently, after the 2010 quake in Haiti, his group helped to build a medical center and teaching hospital in rural Haiti; he showed a photo of the modern, expansive new facility to the Stanford audience, which applauded the work.

“This is what I think of for rural Liberia, rural Sierra Leone,” he said. “This is not rocket science. Just think what we could do if we had a lot of help with systems and partners. It just requires sticking with some of these problems for a long time.”

Previously: Ebola panel says 1.4 million cases possible, building trust key to containmentExpert panel discusses challenges of controlling Ebola in West Africa, Should we worry? Stanford’s global health chief weighs in on Ebola and Biosecurity experts discuss Ebola and related public health concerns and policy implications

HIV/AIDS, In the News

Mourning the loss of AIDS researcher Joep Lange

Stanford researchers specializing in HIV/AIDS mourned the loss today of Dutch scientist Joep Lange, MD, PhD, a leading AIDS researcher who died in the Malaysian Airlines crash yesterday in Ukraine. Lange, a virologist, was particularly well-known for his work in helping expand access to antiretroviral therapy in developing countries. He was among dozens of people on the ill-fated flight who were heading to the 20th International AIDS Conference that opens Sunday in Melbourne, Australia.

“We are all in a state of shocked disbelief here in Melbourne at the tragic loss of one of the giants in the global fight against AIDS and HIV,” Andrew Zolopa, MD, professor of medicine at Stanford, told me in an e-mail from the conference site. “I have known Joep Lange for more than 25 years – he was a friend and a colleague.  Joep was one of the early leaders in our field to push for expanded treatment around the globe – and in particular treatment for Africa and Asia… The world has lost a major figure who did so much good in his quiet but determined manner.  I am shocked by this senseless act of violence. What a terrible tragedy.”

David Katzenstein, MD, also an HIV specialist at Stanford, learned of the death while in Zimbabwe, where he has a long-standing project on preventing transmission of HIV from mother to child. He said Lange, a friend and mentor, had been a “tireless advocate for better treatment for people living with HIV in resource-limited settings. He was universally respected and frequently honored as a real pioneer in early AIDS prevention and treatment.” In 2001, Lange founded the PharmAccess Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Amsterdam, which aims to improve access to HIV therapy in developing countries. He continued to direct the group until his death.

Lange served as president of the International AIDS Society from 2002 to 2004 and had been a consultant to the World Health Organization, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. He led several important clinical trials in Europe, Asia and Africa and played a key role in many NIH-sponsored studies, said Katzenstein, a professor of medicine.

“He was a gentle, thoughtful and caring physician-scientist with a keen sense of humor and a quick and gentle wit. He was constantly absorbing, teaching and thinking about the human (and primate) condition and psychology,” Katzenstein told me. “He was much loved and will be sorely missed.”

HIV/AIDS, In the News, Public Health

Free, one-minute HIV testing…while you shop for clothes?

Free, one-minute HIV testing...while you shop for clothes?

outoftheclosetPerhaps you’re familiar with cafe-laundromats or sushi restaurants with tap dancing. But did you ever visit a second-hand clothing and furniture store to take care of your health-care needs? An audio segment and post on the KERA News (Dallas) blog features a local Out of the Closet shop with a free HIV testing site, and soon a community pharmacy, inside their thrift store – making it the 22nd branch of the U.S. chain to have both.

Bret Camp, the Texas regional director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which operates the thrift stores, said in the post, “Our pharmacy will have everything from blood pressure meds to diabetes supplies…How many places can you go and look at jeans while you’re waiting for your medication?”

More from the post:

It’s an innovative idea, says [Douglas Owens, MD,] a professor of medicine at Stanford University who also serves on the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

A number of organizations, including the CDC and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended universal HIV testing. Of course testing is only the first step, Owens says.

“When people get an adequate treatment for HIV, the drugs reduce their infectivity and so treatment for HIV not only benefits the person who has HIV; it also provides a very important public health benefit that reduces transmission,” Owens explains in the audio segment.

Previously: Task force recommends HIV screening for all people aged 15 to 65, Using Facebook to prevent HIV among at-risk groupsTask force issues draft recommendation for universal HIV screening and National HIV screening and testing could be very cost-effective
Photo by Marilyn Roxie

Global Health, HIV/AIDS, Research, Stanford News

Foreign aid for health extends life, saves children, Stanford study finds

Foreign aid for health extends life, saves children, Stanford study finds

Kenyan child pic - smallMany people are deeply skeptical of foreign aid, believing that these monies often wind up in the pockets of corrupt leaders or never make it down the chain of bureaucracy to the people who really need it. But a new Stanford analysis of both government and private aid programs shows that health aid has been extremely effective not only in extending the lives of people in developing countries but also saving the lives of children under age 5.

Lead researcher Eran Bendavid, MD, said foreign aid programs had their biggest impact between 2000 and 2010, when investments in health reached their peak. During that time, the U.S. government launched its hugely successful initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), while other private groups, such as the Gates Foundation, stepped up investments in health as well.

During that time, low-income countries receiving aid saw a dramatic decline – between 26 and 34 percent – in the number of children who died before their 5th birthday. With just a 4 percent increase in aid, or $1 billion, foreign aid could continue to have a major impact on child mortality, Bendavid said.

“If health aid continues to be as effective as it has been, we estimate there will be 364,800 fewer deaths in children under 5,” Bendavid said. “We are talking about $1 billion, which is a relatively small commitment for developed countries.”

He said many people may find the results surprising. “But for me, it fits with other evidence of the incredible success of public health promotion in developing countries,” he said. For instance, he did a study in 2012 which found that more than 740,000 lives were saved between 2004 and 2008 in nine countries as a result of the PEPFAR program. Other technologies, such as diphtheria, tetanus, measles and polio vaccines for children and insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria, all have contributed to better health among adults and children in low-income countries.

He and colleague Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, also found that aid programs had a lasting impact. The signs of aid’s impact on child mortality were measurable for three years after aid was distributed, while the link between aid and longer life expectancy was detectable five years after aid was made available, the researchers reported.

Previously: Stanford study: South Africa could save millions of lives through HIV prevention and PEPFAR has saved lives – and not just from HIV/AIDS, Stanford study finds
Photo by Karen Ande

Global Health, HIV/AIDS, Women's Health

Preventing domestic violence and HIV in Uganda

Preventing domestic violence and HIV in Uganda

Ugandan dancers - 560

The woman was terrified, as she had just come from the hospital, where she discovered she was HIV-positive. It wasn’t so much the virus she feared, as the reaction from her husband. If he were to find out, he would surely beat her and throw her out of the house.

As predicted, the husband arrived home and seeing his wife in distress, forced her to confess what she had learned. “Either I cut you in two pieces and throw you in the ditch or leave the house,” he yelled, his arm raised in threat.

Fortunately, the wife wasn’t harmed, for the drama was merely that – a work of street theatre designed to break the traditional patterns of domestic violence and HIV in Uganda. The drama is one of the creative strategies being used by the nonprofit Center for Domestic Violence Prevention in Kampala, Uganda to effectively reduce incidents of domestic violence by more than 50 percent in the communities it serves.

In the process, group also aims to reduce the incidence of HIV, which affects 7.2 percent of adults in the East African nation, according to the latest figures from the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS.

The organization works by mobilizing local men and women and training them in various interventions, like the street drama, address pervasive problem of violence among intimate partners. According to its figures, 59 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 say they have experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or partner at some point in their lives.

“We are talking about an epidemic,” said Tina Musuya, a social worker and a women’s rights activist who directs the organization.

I was fortunate to see the street theatre program in action during a recent trip to Uganda with the American Jewish World Service, an international development organization that works to end poverty and promote human rights in the developing world. Fifteen of us, all Global Justice Fellows with the organization, visited CEDOVIP’s offices in Kampala and then fanned out to see the group’s work in action in the streets of Kampala one sunny afternoon.

A crowd had already begun to materialize by the time we arrived in one of the city’s poor neighborhoods, where three drummers had lured people from their homes with a lively beat. Two female dancers in colorful red outfits (pictured above) then entertained the crowd, whose curiosity was heightened by the presence of us five white foreigners. By the time the drama began, more than 100 people had gathered in the dirt road – youngsters who tugged at our hands, older women who sat on wooden stools to watch and groups of men who stood on the sidelines, quietly assessing the unfolding drama.

The story begins when the woman returns from the hospital to cry on a neighbor’s shoulder. The husband then arrives and suspects something is up. He falls into a rage on learning the wife’s news, threatening to “break her bones” and ordering her to leave the house. But the wife says she has nowhere to go. Besides, she tells him, she acquired the virus from him.

A narrator, dressed in an orange shirt, periodically freezes the drama, soliciting suggestions from the crowd on what the couple should do. One observer tells the woman to call the police. Another urges bystanders to intervene to help save the situation.

“We have so many instances of violence in our neighborhood,” the narrator concludes, speaking in Luganda while our host translates. “See what happens in violent situations when the woman becomes HIV-positive. Be supportive. Support the victims, but also support the man. Change the behavior. Break the silence.”

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Global Health, HIV/AIDS, Infectious Disease, Stanford News

Stanford study: South Africa could save millions of lives through HIV prevention

Stanford study: South Africa could save millions of lives through HIV prevention

South Africa could save the lives of some 4.5 million people over the next 20 years by using a double-barreled approach to HIV prevention.

That’s the result of a new study by Stanford researchers who looked at two methods for helping contain the epidemic in South Africa. According to the latest figures from the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS, South Africa is the world’s hardest-hit country with 6.1 million people infected with HIV and most new infections happening via heterosexual transmission.

Effectively targeting people who don’t use condoms and have many sexual partners would prevent many infections and avert the costs of having to treat people down the road

One way to prevent sexual transmission of the disease is to give antiretroviral therapy to individuals as soon as they are found to be HIV-positive, said Sabina Alistar, PhD, first author of the new study. The World Health Organization now recommends that people go on ARV treatment when their CD4 counts – a measure of their immune system function – fall below 500. But a landmark study, published in 2011, showed that if infected individuals are effectively taking ARV treatment, the chance of their passing on the virus falls by a staggering 96 percent. So the greater the number of infected people on treatment, the less the virus will spread through the population.

“It’s much more cost-effective to put people in treatment as you find them, regardless of how far along they’ve progressed, rather than wait until they get really sick and put them on treatment,” said Alistar, who did the study while a PhD candidate in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford.

That idea isn’t new, but in this latest study from Stanford, the researchers examined the benefits of combining that universal approach to therapy with another tool, creating a powerful, cost-effective strategy for preventing millions of infections over time. The added tool, known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, involves daily use of a pill containing an antiretroviral drug. The pill is taken by people who may be at risk for HIV but are not infected. A landmark 2010 trial found that PrEP, if used faithfully, can reduce the risk of acquiring the virus by up to 73 percent.

“If you could focus on getting PrEP to people who engage in risky behaviors, then you could get quite significant results,” Alistar said. “Effectively targeting people who do not use condoms and have many sexual partners would prevent many infections and avert the costs of having to treat people down the road.”

She and her colleagues calculated that combining the two strategies – universal therapy for all those with HIV and targeted PrEP therapy for uninfected, high-risk individuals – would cost $150 per quality-adjusted life year gained (a QALY is measure of how much health benefit is gained for every dollar invested). That is a highly valuable bargain for South Africa, she said, which has significant resources to invest in the epidemic.

Eran Bendavid, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford and senior author of the paper, said scientists are now developing an approach to PrEP that only requires an injection every three or four months, rather than a daily pill.

When that therapy becomes available, “That has the potential to become a game-changer, since the Achilles heel of PrEP is low adherence,” Bendavid said.

The paper appears online today in the journal BMC Medicine.

Previously: U.S. AIDS Czar tells Stanford audience that witnessing death is a powerful motivatorTask force recommends HIV screening for all people aged 15 to 65International AIDS conference ends on an optimistic note and Using family planning counseling to reduce number of HIV-positive children in Africa

Health Disparities, HIV/AIDS, In the News, Patient Care, Public Health, Women's Health

Photography and storytelling may help poor women with HIV cope with their illness

Photography and storytelling may help poor women with HIV cope with their illness

cameraI can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a song, read a poem, or seen a photo that transformed my point of view. But the viewing or listening audience may not be the only ones who benefit from art: Sometimes the act of creating can be therapeutic for the artist, too. So I was interested to read about a study that looked at photography as a means to facilitate empowerment among women with HIV.

Scientists at the University of Missouri partnered with the charity PhotoVoice in a project called Picturing New Possibilities. Thirty women with HIV who were poor and members of a racial or ethnic minority group were given cameras to capture and document their daily lives. They discussed their images in small-group settings and had the option to display them in public exhibits. Then the women were interviewed about their experience with the project.

From a release:

“When the women got the cameras in their hands, they chose to focus on their strengths – not just their challenging circumstances,” [first author  Michelle Teti, DrPH] said. “They were able to reflect on what they had overcome in their lives despite illness. Many women said such opportunities for reflection were few amid their other life responsibilities. The photovoice project really enabled these women to stop, reflect and think about their HIV and their lives in new and often positive ways.”

The results of the study, which was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, were published in the Journal of Nurses in AIDS Care (subscription required).

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Dramatic art depicts triumph over HIVWHO’s new recommendations on contraceptive use and HIVEngagement in arts or sports linked with greater well-being, Scottish report shows and Research suggests art lovers may fare better after a stroke
Photo by Sasha D Butler

Global Health, HIV/AIDS, Stanford News

U.S. AIDS Czar tells Stanford audience that witnessing death is a powerful motivator

In his early days as an AIDS specialist, U.S. Ambassador Eric Goosby, MD, watched as 500 of his patients died of a disease that he and his colleagues could do nothing to stop.

“None of us were prepared for the amount of death that confronted us,” he said of that time in the late 1980s and early 90s at San Francisco General Hospital. The clinicians also suffered at the overwhelming burden of loss, developing symptoms of PTSD and gathering for weekly sessions to talk about their departed patients and what they meant to them.

That experience essentially defined his work today as the top U.S. official for global AIDS programs, Goosby said in a talk last Thursday at Stanford School of Medicine. He told the audience:

It was the central motivator – the fact that I had been in front of so many people who didn’t get the benefit of antiretroviral therapy. I felt driven – and still do – because of those early losses to make sure people who would benefit from these drugs get in front of them.

Goosby today is director of the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which celebrates its 10th anniversary of providing vitally needed assistance to developing countries affected by HIV/AIDS. He also serves as the U.S. liaison with the multi-national Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and most recently became director of the new Office of Global Health Diplomacy at the Department of State. He visited Stanford at the invitation of Michele Barry, MD, director of the university’s Center for Innovation in Global Health.

When PEPFAR began in 2003, there were only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa, the region hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, who were on life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) therapy, which was first marketed in United States in 1997. In those days, there were two, three or four people sharing beds in African hospitals, where ailing people lined the hallways. Death was so prevalent that there was a shortage of wood to build coffins, he said. But death rates have declined significantly with the growing availability of precious medications. Now there are some 5.1 million people on ARV’s, in large part because of PEPFAR’s support, he said.

In addition to direct aid for therapy, a significant portion of PEPFAR’s funding – or $1.3 billion – goes to the Global Fund, and that “buys a lot of lives,” Goosby said.

Since the global economic downturn of 2008, the PEPFAR budget, like most U.S. government programs, has been strained, remaining flat after years of significant increases. Goosby said the program has been able to continue to provide treatment by switching from brand-name drugs to generics, which are less costly; streamlining distribution systems; reducing some staff; and using less costly transport methods, such as trains and trucks, to distribute supplies.

“This is a very important program, but it has had to get smarter about how it uses its money,” he said.

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