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$3 Million Grant Awarded to Improve HIV/AIDS Prevention in Nigeria

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January 27, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University's Program of African Studies has received a $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support innovative social science and community-specific research that is expected to lead to the creation of more successful HIV prevention efforts in Nigeria. 

Northwestern will work collaboratively with the University of Ibadan and other Nigerian institutions as part of REACH (the Research Alliance to Combat HIV/AIDS). The research efforts of the new alliance will complement vigorous treatment efforts by the Nigerian government and many international organizations to curb the upward course of the pandemic.

Nigeria is estimated to have the world's third largest HIV-infected population after South Africa and India.

“Social science expertise can help improve HIV prevention programs by shedding light on the cultural, social and economic factors that increase HIV risk,” said Richard Joseph, Northwestern's Program of African Studies director and principal investigator of the project.

“Attention to the crucial issues of prevention must keep pace with advances in biomedical and public health research and the provision of anti-retroviral treatment,” he added. “Unless the rate of new infections is reduced, Nigeria and other countries could be overwhelmed by a spiraling demand for treatment.”

“Put very directly, the key to turning the tide of this awful epidemic is developing prevention strategies that actually reduce risky sexual behavior,” said Joseph.

A recent national health survey in Nigeria found that while eight of 10 adults had heard of HIV/AIDS, their knowledge of HIV transmission was often superficial. Only two of 10 had an accurate understanding of how the virus is transmitted while as many as seven of 10 believed they were not at risk of contracting the disease.

Many adults in Nigeria regard illness and death as the result of nefarious forces as opposed to biomedical factors. Even among relatively well-educated individuals, risk of HIV infection is often viewed as unrelated to behavioral practices. As a result, many people do not understand the importance of prevention strategies such as delayed sexual initiation, reduction in numbers of partners, regular use of condoms, and testing for HIV.

REACH teams initially will conduct research in six diverse localities using a common, multidisciplinary approach.  They will examine the environmental factors  -- socio-cultural, religious, political, economic and gender-related issues -- that influence decisions about sexual behavior. These factors must be understood if the most promising interventions in each of the targeted communities are going to be designed, according to Joseph.

REACH researchers will devote special attention to resources within the targeted communities  -- social networks, traditional and religious leaders, cultural associations -- that can be mobilized more effectively to encourage behavior change.

“In this way,” said Joseph, “our findings in the community-based projects should contribute to the design of more effective, culturally appropriate prevention interventions in Nigeria generally and elsewhere in Africa. The small number of countries that have succeeded in reducing infection rates is evidence of the enormous challenge of successful prevention,” Joseph said.

The creation of REACH is also a response to the urgent need for detailed, research-based, and systematically presented information about the spread of HIV in specific Nigerian contexts and communities.

REACH also will help disseminate research findings so that the lessons learned can be shared with policy makers at national and local levels.

Northwestern University's Program of African Studies is one of the oldest African studies programs in the United States. It was created in 1948, the same year the University of Ibadan, one of Nigeria's premier universities, was founded.  Their combined faculty will provide the nuanced understanding of African governments, economies, societies, and cultures that is so urgently needed to combat HIV/AIDS, Joseph said.

REACH is structured to include social scientists and other researchers from other institutions in Nigeria and the United States. Through REACH, this expertise will be applied in a systematic way to research on HIV/AIDS prevention and give faculty and students from a variety of academic departments the opportunity to contribute their skills and knowledge to reversing the pandemic.

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