USF Experts in Public Health and Medicine: Source of hope for HIV families

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For 16 years, it’s been their safe space…the place that takes care of them when others won’t. Ask anyone on the receiving end of the Florida Family AIDS Network what the program does and they’ll tell you it’s a life-line for families across the Tampa Bay area.

It’s no surprise then that the folks in the USF College of Public Health were elated this summer when competitive funding for the nationally recognized program was continued. Amid decreased research funding at universities nationwide, this July, USF Health’s Dr. Jay Wolfson was awarded the federal grant from the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). The $1.29 million dollars annually, for the next five years, represents the 16th year of funding for the Ryan White Title IV, Florida Family AIDS Network (FAN).

“We are humbled by the success of this program and the recognition we have been afforded within the HIV/AIDS community nationally”, said Dr. Wolfson, Distinguished Service Professor in Public Health and Medicine. He’s the principal investigator in the program that affords community-based and culturally competent medical services to families infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. The program also provides a broad array of essential social services to the infected and at risk population.

“We started off with, what was then, a new program targeting an ‘uncommon’ audience for HIV/AIDS- infants and children. We designed an untested, community-based, public health model, as opposed to a traditional medical model of intervention”, said Dr. Wolfson.

Among the goals of the USF-based team that includes public health experts and MD’s is to look at the evolution of HIV/AIDS within the family. “We have begun monitoring data about people over 40 who’ve been living with the disease for a number of years”, said Dr. Wolfson, “and those over 40 who’ve newly acquired the disease.” The results will help scientists and doctors improve current medical treatments, as well as quality-of-life for patients already infected with the disease.

“When we started 16 years ago, the incidence of the disease in that group (infants and children) was low and so was the political interest in addressing HIV/AIDS in that population. But we saw the tsunami of the disease coming! As the face of the disease transformed from gay, white males to young women of color, we found ourselves on the cutting edge of prevention and treatment”, said Dr. Wolfson.

The Florida Family AIDS Network is built on a foundation of prevention and community- based health improvement, rather than a more common, institutionally – based intervention. The nationally recognized model was expanded approximately 10 years ago beyond infants and children to also include women, adolescents and other affected relatives in the family, regardless of age. The program serves a five-county area: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota.

A significant number of FAN team members have been part of the program for more than a decade – some from day one of the program. A key group of USF- based team members, in place for many years, has been described as “central” to its success. They include Associate Professor in Pediatrics Dr. Patricia Emmanuel, who is Dr. Wolfson’s clinical partner in the federal grant. Also part of the USF-based team are: Barbara Clark-Alexander, Marylin Merida, Mary Geary, Barbara Szelag and Robin Suggs. “Some of our clients have become our staff. This has been another vital element of programmatic success. We have sought to integrate our prevention and treatment efforts into the fabric of the community and to involve, as much as possible, those most affected by the risks associated with HIV and AIDS”, said Dr. Wolfson.

“HIV and AIDS, particularly among women, infants, children and adolescents, represent a terrible force that’s placing at risk the weakest link in the chain of health and wellness in our communities. We cannot afford to ignore the risks of this disease. They are reflective of the same forces that, in the past, have quite literally decimated populations”, said Dr. Wolfson. “Finding the political will to provide preventive care and interventions to this populations at risk, as well as those already infected, is a measure of our commitment to health communities and good medicine.”

Dr. Wolfson’s clinical partner in the federal grant is Dr. Patricia Emmanuel, Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the USF College of Medicine. Among the program’s proud accomplishments, says Wolfson, was a reduction in the transmission of HIV/AIDS in utero. “From the early years, we pushed for education and testing of high risk pregnant women. We designed interventions to specifically reduce the likelihood of in-utero transmission from the pregnant mother to her fetus. The effort paid off marvelously. The rate of in-utero infections plummeted and very few babies were born with the disease”, said Dr. Wolfson. “Unfortunately, there is evidence of new spikes among newborns, indicating a need for more vigilance, made more difficult by diminished resources.”