UTEP to develop new initiative to reduce HIV among people who use drugs at the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border

University of Texas at El Paso to develop sustainable public health intervention to suppress human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in people who use drugs in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border region to slow the spread of HIV. The initiative will be funded by a $ 3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Julia Lechuga, Ph.D., associate professor of public health sciences at UTEP, received funding to implement a biobehavioural intervention aimed at suppressing the viral load of HIV in people who inject drugs in order to reduce the likelihood of HIV transmission. The recently funded study is the next phase of Project Encuentro, a community-based HIV risk reduction program in El Paso and Juárez, Mexico, which Lechuga implemented with support from another NIH grant it received in 2016. The Encuentro project is a collaboration between UTEP and Programa Compañeros, a social service organization based in Juárez.

Despite advances in HIV treatment, people are still at risk of contracting and transmitting the virus, especially people who inject drugs. Our goal is to reduce the spread of HIV in our binational community by providing people who use drugs with access to much-needed resources to help them improve their health and quality of life. “

Julia Lechuga, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences at UTEP

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults and adolescents who inject drugs accounted for 10% of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses in the United States, the U.S. Territories, and the Republic of Palau in 2018.

The researchers, including professors at the University of California, San Francisco, will use a new phased optimization strategy to develop an intervention to improve antiretroviral treatment adherence in 384 HIV-positive people who use drugs in Juárez.

If taken exactly as prescribed, antiretroviral therapy can reduce the amount of virus, or viral load, in the blood to undetectable levels.

Over the next five years, Lechuga will test four interventions to determine which combinations are most effective in helping people who inject drugs and who are HIV-positive to suppress their viral loads. Strategies include using patient navigators to help participants obtain HIV treatment services, providing psychological therapy to treat depression, improving access to methadone treatment, and providing educational and skills sessions for medication adherence.

Maria Elena Ramos, Executive Director of Programa Compañeros, said the new project will enable the organization to implement new interventions to help people who inject drugs and who are living with HIV to adhere to medication by providing new public health strategies such as psychological therapies.

“This new study will allow us to adapt evidence-based practices and incorporate them into other effective treatment models,” Ramos said. “We will also discover other tools to detect and treat the most prevalent mental health problems such as depression in the population we serve.”

The first NIH grant Lechuga received to fund the Encuentro Project ended earlier this year. Over the past five years, the Encuentro project has directly affected 3,500 people on both sides of the US-Mexico border. The program provided HIV testing to people who injected heroin or crack and offered peer network interventions and educational sessions to reduce the risk of HIV among people who use drugs.

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