UNC awarded $1.7 million to curb the spread of HIV in North Carolina

A team of researchers from the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at UNC has received a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study novel HIV testing methods to detect acute HIV infection and target sexual networks to curb the spread of HIV in North Carolina.

The four-year study will assess the performance and cost-effectiveness of a new, 4th generation test to diagnose acute HIV infection (AHI). AHI is the period between infection and detection of HIV antibodies and lasts up to 12 weeks. During this brief window of time, the virus replicates rapidly, and the probability of transmission is very high.

“We believe that a significant proportion of HIV transmission by the sexual route is driven by AHI,” said Peter Leone, MD, MPH, professor of medicine in the UNC School of Medicine and co-principal investigator of the study. “Identifying individuals with AHI could have a significant positive impact on the spread of the virus.”

Study investigators say the findings will likely have critical implications for the use of 4th generation HIV testing methods. “If these methods are shown to be accurate and cost-effective, their use would allow more widespread screening for acute infection and help with prevention,” said co-principle investigator Cynthia Gay, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at UNC.

The Screening Targeted Populations to Interrupt Ongoing Chains of Transmission with Enhanced Partner Notification, or STOP, study will use the AHI diagnosis to identify sexual networks where there is a high risk for HIV transmission and target them for prevention interventions, particularly partner notification.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) increasingly use the internet to find sexual partners. “The anonymity of the internet can limit the ability to perform partner notification by traditional means,” said Lisa Hightow-Weidman, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at UNC and the study’s third co-principal investigator. The study will utilize online social networks, internet-based notification and text messaging for partner notification and education. “These technologies will include real-time linkage to information about HIV testing sites for AHI, symptoms associated with AHI and referral to HIV and STD care,” Hightow-Weidman said.

The study is a partnership between UNC and the Communicable Disease Branch of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Two additional sites have been awarded funding for this project, the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

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