UH Center to Address HIV/AIDS Epidemic Along the Gulf Coast

New Initiative Funded by Gilead Sciences, Inc. Mobilizes Communities to Implement Solutions

The University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work has received a $5 million grant from Gilead Sciences, Inc. to establish the SUSTAIN Wellbeing COMPASS Coordinating Center to enhance HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in five states along the Gulf Coast with the highest HIV rates in the south – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The grant is a part of a new $100 million, 10-year program Gilead introduced to address HIV/AIDS in the Southern United States. As part of the program, three coordinating centers will identify and provide funding to local organizations to address the epidemic throughout the region. The UH center will boost HIV/AIDS prevention efforts by incorporating attention to the roles of wellness, trauma, mental health and substance use, especially opioid use. In addition the inclusion of comprehensive assessments of well-being, mental health trauma and substance use through evidence-based screenings and appropriate follow-up care will improve overall health outcomes.

“We’re grateful for this opportunity to fight such an important yet challenging fight,” said Samira Ali, SUSTAIN Center director and assistant professor at the UH Graduate College of Social Work. “As part of the Gilead COMPASS Initiative, the University of Houston is committed to addressing HIV/AIDS disparities. By using a community-centered approach, we’ll mobilize people to be part of the solution.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the southern United States accounts for approximately 45 percent of all people living with HIV in the country, despite being home to only one-third of the population. Nearly half of people who die of HIV/AIDS in the United States live in the south. HIV disproportionally affects Latinos, transgender women, black women and black gay and bisexual men, in part because of stigma, poverty, lack of access to healthcare and racial inequality. Of all black gay and bisexual men who were diagnosed with HIV in the United States in 2014, more than 60 percent live in the south.

“HIV/AIDS remains an urgent public health crisis in the United States, and this is particularly apparent in the Southern states where rates of new infection rival those seen in the 1980s. In some communities, those rates are actually rising – a chilling reminder that the epidemic is far from a thing of the past,” said Gregg Alton, executive vice president, corporate and medical affairs, for Gilead Sciences. “We recognize a collaborative effort is needed, and we are very pleased to partner with local organizations that are uniquely positioned to address the epidemic on the ground.”

Along with becoming director of the SUSTAIN (Supporting U.S. Southern States to Incorporate Trauma-Informed HIV/AIDS Initiatives for Wellbeing) Center, Ali is principal director of SMART Cougars Plus, a SAMHSA-funded HIV/Hepatitis C/mental health, substance use prevention intervention program for young minorities. Working to provide treatment and mitigate health risks in underserved communities, including Houston’s Third Ward, is a growing focus of UH Health.

“Community health is essential, because communities need to decide what they need,” Ali said. “We are now on the forefront of preventing the disease but also getting people into much needed HIV care and keeping them there.”

The Graduate College of Social Work, through its National Institute of Drug Abuse-funded Center for Drug and Social Policy Research and its SMART Cougars Plus program, has worked for almost a decade at the forefront of community-based HIV research and intervention.

“We are proud to partner with Gilead in this progressive initiative and honored to serve as a grantee for the important work SUSTAIN will undertake,” said Alan Dettlaff, dean of the Graduate College of Social Work. “It is only through committed action to not only recognize but also ameliorate the issues of injustice at the heart of adverse outcomes in HIV/AIDS prevention, trauma and wellness that we will make strides towards more just and equitable outcomes. The work this grant supports aligns perfectly with the College’s vision of achieving social, racial, economic and political justice, local to global, and we are grateful to Gilead for their vision in funding work that directly addresses disparities in care.”