Nov. 29, 2007
By Mary Reed
Many people will wear a red ribbon Saturday in support of World AIDS Day. At Ohio University, the day also is a chance to celebrate faculty members whose work is advancing the knowledge and treatment of the disease that infects 2.5 million new victims each year.
The mental health side of AIDS and HIV
Student group screens film for World AIDS Day
On World AIDS Day, the OU-COM chapter of the American Medical Student Association will present the film "A Closer Walk" and provide information about advocacy for AIDS victims. The event will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, at Donkey Coffee and is free and open to the public. It is cosponsored by the Office of International Programs at OU-COM.
On World AIDS Day, Assistant Professor of Community Health Services Tania Basta will present a paper at the National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta titled, "Sexual Risk Taking and Psychological Distress." Basta's paper and much of her research focus on the psychological distress experienced by individuals diagnosed as HIV positive.
Her studies have shown that individuals with HIV who are experiencing psychological distress are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, thereby increasing risk of transmission of the disease to their sexual partners.
Basta's research also shows that HIV-infected blacks and Hispanics who sought mental health treatment reported lower levels of depression and anxiety on the Brief Symptom Inventory than their white counterparts.
"Providers need to realize that even if their clients don't score high on this measure of psychological distress that they are still experiencing it at high enough levels to seek care," Basta said. "Since sexual risk-taking is associated with higher levels of distress; this should be taken into account when providing prevention messages to the clients."
Basta's research is particularly significant because ethnic minorities in the United States have highly disproportionate rates of HIV and AIDS.
Rural, older Americans living with AIDS
Professor of Geriatric Medicine/Gerontology Timothy Heckman also is focused on mental health issues involving HIV/AIDS, but in populations that don't get much attention. The health psychologist in the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine has been studying AIDS in rural and elderly populations for the past eight years. One of his current studies is a random clinical trial of older adults with HIV/AIDS, some of whom are participating in intervention programs to help them cope with their illnesses.
"Our most recent analyses suggest that, in the short-term, HIV-infected older adults who participate in a face-to-face (coping program) reduce depressive symptoms and decrease perceptions of loneliness," he said.
Heckman recently received a $1.5 million, four-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Nursing Research to test the effectiveness of a telephone support group for older adults with HIV. One of Heckman's earlier studies found that a telephone support program reduced depression for rural seniors.
Caring for AIDS orphans
One of Heckman's colleagues at OU-COM, Gillian Ice, studies the effects of AIDS where the majority of the world's AIDS cases occur: Africa. Ice is an associate professor of social medicine and director of International Programs for OU-COM. With the help of a National Science Foundation grant, she has been conducting research for nearly three years in a rural subsistence community in Nyanza Province in western Kenya.
Ice and her students study grandparents caring for grandchildren who are AIDS orphans. They have found something that is counterintuitive: the caretakers tend to have lower stress and better nutrition than similar grandparents who aren't caring for orphaned children.
"I think with the help of the orphans, maybe the household (food) production increases," Ice said, referring to the labor the children provide for farming activities. "Perhaps the fact that adults that would normally be in the household have died of HIV (means) there are fewer adults to feed, and the adults eat more than the kids."
In addition to her research, Ice is founder and president of the Kenyan Children's Fund, a charitable organization that supports orphanages, educational programs and families like those in her study. While in Kenya in July, Ice delivered 900 pairs of shoes and school math sets to children.
Tackling legislation, discrimination
Kenya and other Sub-Saharan African countries have struggled to come to terms with some basic facts about the AIDS epidemic, such as how the disease is spread, how to deliver health care to AIDS patients and how to deal with discrimination of those with the disease.
Assistant Professor of Community Health Anthony Sallar, a native of Ghana, is surveying national and regional legislators in this west African nation to learn the politicians' attitudes and intended votes on issues related to AIDS. For example, would they support a tax increase to fund HIV programming? Would they legalize sex workers? Would they protect the confidentiality of people suffering with HIV/AIDS?
Sallar plans to share his results with AIDS advocacy groups so they can strategize about which policies to promote.
Sallar is traveling to Ghana over winter intersession to study discrimination of gays and how it relates to AIDS. "In some developing countries they don't believe we have a homosexual (population)," Sallar said. He plans to interview gay Ghanaian men about their HIV prevention and survival strategies and what they believe needs to be done to combat HIV/AIDS in the gay population.
Many in African communities do not welcome Sallar's research. "They tell me, 'Don't bring that Western concept here,'" Sallar said, "but (gays) should be accepted as they are and not discriminated against."