Researchers Get $8.8 Million for Study Aimed at Reducing Spread of HIV

A team of researchers co-led by a UCLA epidemiology professor has received an $8.8 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to conduct a nationwide study aimed at reducing the spread of HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — among young transgender women through the use of a mobile app, the university announced Tuesday.

The app, called LifeSkills Mobile, allows high-risk women who are unable to participate in face-to-face interventions due to geographic and socioeconomic barriers to easily access comprehensive HIV prevention information and strategies through their mobile devices.

Dr. Matthew Mimiaga, director of the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for LGBTQ Advocacy, Research & Health, said there is an urgent need for interventions among younger transgender women whose infection rates are particularly high.

“The constant and unrelenting exposure to gender minority stigma, compounded by the psychosocial challenges associated with social disadvantage and economic marginalization, exacerbates disparities in HIV incidence among young transgender women,” Mimiaga said. “This can lead to behaviors such as substance use, sex work, health care avoidance and others that increase HIV acquisition risk.”

Dr. Marvin Belzer, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and head of the adolescent medicine division at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said researchers are partnering with transgender-specific organizations for “maximum impact.”

“Given that this population is a high-risk group for HIV infection and face numerous transgender-specific barriers to consistent condom use and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) linkage and uptake, they represent a group in great need of effective strategies to decrease HIV incidence,” said Belzer, who is one of the principal investigators along with Dr. Lisa Kuhns of Northwestern University.

The study will enroll 5,000 young transgender women between the ages of 16 and 29 who will be recruited online.

The five-year project will gauge how well the mobile intervention improves the health outcomes among its users, researchers said.

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