Sharing the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

A $2 million grant is supporting a multidisciplinary collaboration with Université d’ Etat d ’Haiti researching ways to mitigate the disease among Haitian adolescents.

Participants the S.H.A.R.E. Haiti Summer Institute: (back row l to r) Girma Juste, UEH program planner; USF Associate Professor Wilson Palacios; UEH Co-PI Professor J. Calixte Clerisme; CBCS Dean Julie Serovich; USF Assistant Professor and Co-PI Guitele J. Rahill; Associate Professor and Co-PI Celia Lescano; UEH Departement d'Ethnologie Dean and S.H.A.R.E. Fiscal Manager Jacques Jovin; and S.H.A.R.E. Co-Investigators USF Associate Professor Nancy Romero-Daza and USF College of Public Health Dr. Julie Baldwin.  (seated front row l to r) USF College of Public health Research Assistant David Tilley and mentees from UEH Proefssors Judite Blanc; Ascencio Maxi, Jr. Delano Jean; Hugues Foucault and Jean Denis Lys.  Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez

      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 19, 2014) – With HIV/AIDS as its target, a five-year project between USF and the Université d’ Etat d ’Haiti (UEH) has gotten off to an auspicious start between an orientation meeting during spring break in March and a two-week summer institute taking place on campus this month.

An interdisciplinary team of scholars from USF is working with faculty from UEH’s Department of Ethnology on a project they’ve named S.H.A.R.E. Haiti for Syndemics HIV/AIDS Research Education in the Caribbean nation. Together they are building a program of funded research that supports ongoing and sustainable HIV/AIDS research in the country to mitigate the impact of HIV among Haitian adolescents.

“Syndemics is all about two or more diseases in a population and how they interact with the social and cultural conditions that exacerbate them,” said Guitele Rahill, assistant professor in the School of Social Work and a co-PI for the $2.04 million grant that is supporting the effort. “For this project we needed the diverse contributions of different kinds of experts. We each bring expertise that makes this an especially strong and powerful combination that can accomplish quite a lot.”

A Powerful Team

Rahill, Associate Professor Celia M. Lescano, from USF’s Mental Health Law and Policy (MHLP) Department in the College of Behavioral and Community Science and Professor Calixte Clérismé from UEH are the three principal Investigators.

Haiti-based Clérismé and Haiti-born Rahill have enjoyed a long-standing collaboration on previous National Science Foundation and NIH grants. A sociologist, Clérismé possesses wide-ranging experience in conducting health research and program evaluations in Haiti. A great portion of his focus has been on HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health and reproductive health.

Lescano’s research is in health promotion and intervention with vulnerable and underserved/minority populations and combines with her substantive experience in obtaining and managing more than $10 million from NIH funding.

The rest of the team, from both universities, adds still more interdisciplinary strengths.

Professor Julie Baldwin comes from the USF College of Public Health, Associate Professor Wilson Palacios from the Criminology Department and Professor Nancy Romero-Daza is from the Anthropology Department. They will provide training and mentorship to the UEH scholars.

Palacios and Romero-Daza will be primarily responsible for the development, organization, and implementation of the curriculum for web-based and in-person course portions of the S.H.A.R.E. Haiti training over the next five years.

Palacios’ background in social epidemiology of drug use and abuse and criminology and his history of funded grant activities on HIV risk behaviors are essential in helping UEH Faculty Scholars to identify factors that interact syndemically to increase HIV risk for Haitian adolescents.

The S.H.A.R.E. Haiti team had it's first orientation meeting in Haiti shown here in a meeting led by Michel Cayemites of the Haitian Institute of Childhood.

He said, “Our initial orientation visit to Haiti was a life-changing event for me; I am more committed than ever in ensuring our Scholars are provided the resources needed in developing sustainable research careers focused on Haitian families and children in Haiti.”

Romero-Daza’s expertise in Syndemic Theory provides depth in explaining the interaction among factors that potentially increase HIV risk for Haitian adolescents. She has a strong background in federally-funded research, program design and evaluation of HIV/AIDS education and prevention initiatives in Connecticut, Florida, Lesotho and Costa Rica.

Her experience in Haiti was similar to Palacios’, ““Our visit provided a wonderful opportunity to learn so much about our scholars in the program, our university and community partners, and the people of Haiti. We truly look forward to this collaborative effort and hope to make a difference in the health and well-being of Haitian youth.”

Rigorous From the Start

“This interdisciplinary research and educational collaboration is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s (NICHD) Global Partnerships. The competition for funding was fierce and in order to be chosen for the team, UEH faculty scholars underwent a rigorous and competitive selection process. The final five who participated in the orientation in March in Haiti and who are attending the Summer Institute at USF are Professors Judite Blanc, Hugues Foucault, Delano Jean, Jean Denis Lys and Ascencio Junior Maxi.

Once selected, each S.H.A.R.E. Haiti faculty scholar received a laptop computer purchased in Haiti and was paired with someone to provide a guiding hand.

Assoc. Prof. Celia Lescano and USF Information Technology Specialist Nathan McMullen present UEH Prof.Delano Jean with a new computer.

“UEH faculty scholars were carefully paired with USF mentors after a deliberate process which involved presentations by each individual, interviews, and matching of background and research interests,” Lescano said.

In all, a group of 20 scholars, administrators, IT experts, program planners, mentors and volunteer translators are working together to make the two-week Summer Institute a success.

They had the opportunity to get to know each other last March.

“The initial trip to Haiti was very important because it provided our team with an opportunity to see some of the communities where our Haitian colleagues will be conducting their HIV-related work, and to familiarize ourselves with organizations that are working tirelessly to address pressing health and social issues in Haiti,” Lescano said.

On the day following the orientation, UEH Dean of Ethnology Jacques Jovin pulled the USF team aside to say, “The scholars are extremely excited about this S.H.A.R.E. Haiti project. They told me that now that they have been officially and personally embraced by the USF team, and have had the opportunity to meet you face-to-face, they are even more motivated to participate and to learn.” Clérismé added, “Clearly, we can see that ... they are working in the interest of UEH and in the interest of our country and of our Haitian people.”

Making Progress

Now that the UEH scholars, administration and staff are on campus for the summer institute, the scholars have been engaged from 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. daily learning about HIV and different populations which includes young people, women, children, men who have sex with men – as well as HIV in Haiti in general. With each population studied, they have practiced identifying the syndemic factors that increase HIV risk for its members. The training also includes workshops on the ethics of research, on the conduct of community based participatory projects, and on quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

“The Scholars are extremely enthused about what they have learned and they are very excited about putting that knowledge into practical application in the form of an eventual grant submission,” Lescano said.

Underscoring that point, UEH faculty scholar Lys said, “I am confident that my participation in this two-week intensive training program will not only enhance my ability to perform research, but also make me an asset for UEH and the promotion of research in Haiti.”

His fellow faculty scholar Jean added, “I can really understand now the goals we pursue, and I feel again, it’s a privilege to be a part of it… I now know the mechanisms to search for an NIH grant. The presentations are really very informative and clear.”

And there’s still a lot of territory to cover.

“I feel that I have so much to learn from the competent mentors at USF. By the end of the project, I hope the Haitian population could cope better with the complex situation of HIV,” said UEH faculty scholar Maxi.

His colleague, Blanc, added, “I was very proud to be selected as a participant in this important project. After only two days at this Summer Institute, I am so excited to try to submit ideas for a grant proposal on trauma, autism and HIV prevention among youth.”

The team expects the project to have a lasting impact.

Foucault said, “Participation in this program will reinforce the institutional capacity of our department to better understand management of international funds and projects. It will empower the professional and academic capacity of professors to write fundable grants that are grounded in the ethical conduct of research with human subjects. On a personal level, it increases my knowledge related to a new conceptual, methodological and theoretical perspective from which to view HIV-AIDS…a new biopsychosocial paradigm, Syndemics Theory.”

A Dream Come True Project

UEH is the first academic institution in Haiti to obtain a Federal-Wide Assurance (FWA) authorization/designation through the efforts of the S.H.A.R.E. Haiti team at USF.

USF's Nancy Romero Daza, Guitele Rahill, UEH Ethnology Dept.Dean Jovin and USF 's Celia Lescano stand in front of construction site that will provide areas for Haitian students to meet and study.

“This signifies an institution’s commitment to following the standard regulations of research with human subjects and is a prerequisite for the establishment of an institutional review board,” Lescano explained. “It is also a crucial part of infrastructure development at UEH. An FWA is an essential component of being a research organization.”

Rahill said, “This collaboration is a ‘dream come true’ for me, to be able to join with Haiti-based Scholars and community leaders to make a dent in reducing HIV health disparities for Haitians, and with a team of individuals who genuinely care.”

Each day of the summer institute has brought both institutions closer together.

Jovin said, “With the welcome addresses of (College of Behavioral and Community Sciences) Dean Serovich, Dr. Paul Stiles (MHLP) and Dr. Tennyson Wright (School of Social Work), we see more clearly the involvement and support of USF in the project. We are very impressed by the engagement and commitment of the Drs. Lescano and Rahill and their colleagues in the project. We want to congratulate and thank them for the efforts they have made since the preparation of the project until now.”

Rahill notes that while the incidence of HIV and AIDS has been declining – both in Haiti and the United States, the disease is still problematic for the small nation.

“HIV-AIDS should not define how anyone thinks of Haiti,” Rahill points out. “Still it has been devastated by the disease. We’re seeking to build on the progress already made and stem the tide as much as we can.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563