COPH students present research at the 2020 National Ryan White Conference

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USF College of Public Health students Hunter Drake and Alexandra Cario presented their research at the 2020 National Ryan White Conference, which was held virtually in August due to COVID-19.

This conference, which celebrated “30 Years of Innovating Care, Optimizing Public Health, Ending the HIV Epidemic,” focused on all the ways the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Programs have pushed that legacy forward.

Drake, a second-year doctoral student, shared his work on, “Substance Use Screening Among Youth Living with HIV in Integrated Care Settings,” which examined the rate of substance use by youth living with HIV who are seen in an integrated care setting. 

“My partner and I are living with HIV and he has struggled with substance use issues. It has been supremely challenging for him to stay on the road to recovery. I would not wish that kind of suffering on anyone,” Drake said. “If you can reach people early enough in their substance use, you can reduce or eliminate the potentially poor health outcomes. Substance use concerns are well documented among youth living with HIV. Not only is substance use a risk factor for contracting HIV among youth, but substance use can complicate HIV treatment given its impact on medication adherence, treatment adherence, and potential drug interactions.”

According to Drake, 42 percent of youth in the study screened positive for marijuana and alcohol use.

“Mitigating the behavior early can prevent HIV transmission, acquisition of additional STIs, and keep youth living with HIV healthy and living productive lives,” Drake said.

USF COPH doctoral student, Hunter Drake. (Photo courtesy of Hunter Drake)

“I hope that this project illustrates the importance of screening youth living with HIV for substance use across all care settings. My further hope is that screenings and referrals to care for substance use keep these wonderful young human beings adherent to their medications and showing up to their health care appointments. I want substance-related HIV transmission to stop, viral loads to tank, and CD4 cells to rebound,” Drake said.

He worked under the guidance of Dr. Tiffany Chenneville, a licensed psychologist in USF Health Morsani College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics also holding a joint appointment in USF’s Department of Psychology, who served as the principal investigator.

“I was very humbled that Dr. Chenneville allowed me to present this study,” he said. “The opportunity to present at a conference at this level meant that our work had merit and relevance to ending the epidemic as we understand it today. The most important piece was to see how our research fits into the overall contemporary conversation around HIV.”

Although the conference was virtual this year, Drake said that he enjoyed the opportunity to network.

“The convenience and safety of virtual conferences make them invaluable at present, but I cannot wait to attend in person again. There is a different skillset that presenting virtually does not offer. I prefer a handshake to a ‘like’ and a conversation to a ‘chat.’ I found it more challenging to engage people and network in the virtual form than in-person,” he said.

USF COPH MPH student Alexandra Cario. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Cario)

Cario, who is enrolled in the COPH’s public health practice MPH degree program, shared her work on, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Screening Among Youth with HIV in Integrated Care Settings.”

Cario is also social worker in USF Health Morsani College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics – Infectious Diseases, working alongside Dr. Chenneville and caring for youth living with HIV located in Tampa and St. Petersburg at various clinics.

“Living with HIV and new HIV transmissions continues to be an important topic to the field of public health,” Cario said. “As HIV has become more medically manageable with better medications, other risk factors and psychosocial issues become more important when looking at reducing or preventing HIV.”

Cario used an ACEs screener tool, which was modified to include seven additional questions, to assess early trauma in patients ages 18 to 24.

“This tool was given to patients to self-report their answers,” Cario said. “The ACEs tool and early trauma have shown to be interrelated with adverse social, behavioral, and health outcomes later in life.”

Cario said she hopes this research will help to identify ways to intervene early when risk factors are present.

“This topic is important to me because many of our youth patients living with HIV have many systemic factors that affect their lives and their care,” she said. “Acknowledging that these mental health concerns and past traumas play a role on their future transmission and adherence to care is important when developing prevention methods and education tools. Providing holistic care is vital to supporting our youth living with HIV. Acknowledging that trauma experiences in life can impact health outcomes can be used to design early intervention programs to, hopefully, reduce HIV transmissions later in life.”

Cario said the conference staff did a “phenomenal job” of moving the conference and presentations to a virtual setting.

“It is incredibly rewarding to be able to present at this conference for a second year in a row,” she said. “The work we do for our patients and supporting youth living with HIV is so important to all of us at our clinic and getting to share that work with so many other HIV health care agencies is beyond meaningful. I hope by sharing research at conferences we can build networks and collaborations with other agencies and continue to work toward reducing HIV transmissions.”

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health