Community Program Seeks to Diminish Stigma around HIV in Order to Reduce Spread of the Disease

Dr Gabbidon head shot

(Jan. 7, 2020) – A new research grant will target the multiple stigmas surrounding HIV in Tampa Bay, with the goal of increasing health screenings and diminishing the spread of the disease.

Dr. Kemesha Gabbidon, a post-doctoral fellow at USF St. Petersburg, was awarded a $70,000 Transformative Grant to implement a community program that works with individuals and communities most affected by the epidemic. This program seeks to generate greater awareness about the disease and its treatments, reduce the negative stigma around those who have it and improve the overall health and well-being of populations.

“In the south there is higher HIV stigma, compounded by homophobia and issues of racism. People are less likely to get screened because of this stigma or seek out medical care, leading to the spread of the disease because many people do not know that they carry it,” said Gabbidon.

Despite being home to only 38 percent of the country’s population, southern states experience 52 percent of new HIV diagnoses. In 2017, Florida ranked third in the nation in the number of new HIV cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in the state, only Miami has a larger population of those carrying the disease than Tampa Bay.

There are various reasons for why the disease is so prevalent in the south. Issues such as poverty, access to health care, housing stability and food security all play a part. This research grant will be used to examine these and other local community stressors that impact HIV risk.

“Southern states currently carry a higher burden of HIV as compared to the west or across the north,” said Gabbidon. “When we look at populations that are impacted the most, minorities carry the highest burden.”

Gabbidon plans to work in collaboration with the community and take all those factors into account when developing the program.

The program will consist of focus groups with community members and in-depth interviews with those struggling with the disease or impacted by it, such as family members and friends of diagnosed individuals. These sessions will focus on enhancing awareness and information about HIV, reducing stigmatizing behavior that negatively effects chances of treatment and screenings and increasing social contact between community members and those living with HIV, showing the human face of the disease. It will largely target young gay or bisexual men from minority populations.

Interactions during these sessions will help identify the most prevalent types of stigmas and stressors, assess the health and mental health resources available and needed and develop interventions that can best meet the needs of the community.

The local community program will largely be designed after a similar one that was successfully implemented in Kenya by Psychology Professor Tiffany Chenneville.

The local community program will largely be designed after a similar one that was successfully implemented in Kenya by Psychology Professor Tiffany Chenneville.

The community program employed in Tampa Bay will largely be designed after a similar one that was implemented in Kenya by USF St. Petersburg Psychology Professor Tiffany Chenneville. The SEERS (Stigma-reduction through Education, Empowerment and Research) Project was a collaboration between Chenneville and Springs of Hope Kenya, an orphanage for children affected by HIV, to address HIV-related stigma among youth with the disease.

Since its inception, nearly 8,000 people, many of whom are youths between the ages of 13 and 24, have received training in local schools and communities in Nakuru, Kenya.

“Community members in Kenya who participated in the training showed significant increases in knowledge and decreases in stigma as it relates to HIV. As a result, there was more HIV screenings and for those who tested positive, they were more likely to connect with medical care,” said Chenneville.

Though there are four key components to the SEERs training, including awareness, skills building, and services like counseling, Chenneville said the final component, personal contact with someone living with HIV, is critical for success.

“The social interaction with someone living with the disease, knowing someone with that experience, is crucial and I believe does the most to reduce the stigma around HIV,” added Chenneville.

Grant funding for this research came from Gilead Science’s COMPASS Initiative – Commitment to Partnership in Addressing HIV/AIDS in Southern States. The COMPASS Initiative brings together three coordinating centers – Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, Southern AIDS Coalition and the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work – to identify and provide funding to local organizations that aim to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic throughout the region.

“Through this funding, organizations are creating programs to combat the stigma and isolation that too often accompany an HIV diagnosis. Communities are key in turning the tide of the epidemic in the South,” said Dafina Ward, JD, Interim Executive Director, Southern AIDS Coalition. “We need to keep that momentum going into the next year to combat the spread of HIV while caring for those living with it in the South.”