UNL sociologist studies HIV spread in rural Puerto Rico

August 14, 2014 by Gillian Klucas, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Kirk Dombrowski Credit: Craig Chandler

Puerto Rico has one of the highest HIV rates in the United States, primarily from drug users sharing needles. To help prevent HIV infections, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist is using his expertise in studying how people form social connections to explore how drug users' social lives influence the spread of HIV.

            Kirk Dombrowski, head of UNL's Minority Health Disparities Initiative, recently received $2.9 million from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Drug Abuse for a five-year study investigating how HIV spreads among Puerto Rican drug users. Ultimately, this research should identify effective, cost-efficient prevention strategies targeting HIV infections in .

            While HIV infections on the U.S. mainland occur almost exclusively in large cities, Puerto Rico's HIV rate is escalating primarily in rural areas. A government slum-clearing program pushed many of the island's poor people into rural areas without jobs.

            "So people who had minor drug problems and a community, now have no one around them and major drug problems," Dombrowski said.

            Statistics illustrate the rural nature of HIV prevalence in Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory ranks in the top 5 percent of states and territories in HIV prevalence per capita, while its only city, San Juan, ranks in just the top 20 percent of U.S. cities.

            Dombrowski's team is working with El Punto de la Montana, a nonprofit organization that supplies with clean needles, to survey and interview users and to understand how their social relationships form, who they share needles with, how information is communicated and other information. Researchers will also know who becomes infected with HIV during that time.

            Computers will help analyze how social networks evolve over time in relation to risky behavior. As patterns emerge, Dombrowski and his collaborators from the City University of New York and the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine can determine which social factors influence the spread of HIV and other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis C.

            From the analysis, they can simulate injection rate networks on a large scale and develop long-term projections of HIV's spread.

            "We can use these simulations to experiment with what kinds of interventions might be effective in stopping HIV, given the risk networks and the way they develop," he said.

            Throughout the study, they will evaluate the number of doctors willing to treat AIDS patients and develop a transportation plan for participants who contract HIV to support their medical care.

            "There are resources available," Dombrowski said. "The problem is that people don't know about them. So we're going to facilitate what people already have available."

            Using information from the social network evaluation, researchers will launch a peer education program that trains injectors to talk to peers about HIV prevention and will evaluate the program's effectiveness.

            "We feel strongly that this research will be useful outside of Puerto Rico," Dombrowski said, referring to the increase in injection drug use in rural areas throughout the United States. "The kind of risk behaviors that created HIV problems in big cities are growing in rural areas. Where you have risk behaviors growing, HIV can't be too far behind."

Explore further: Researchers relate arrests with HIV risk environment

Related Stories

Researchers relate arrests with HIV risk environment

July 9, 2014
Practices used in policing injection drug users in Russia might contribute to HIV transmission and overdose mortality.

HIV diagnoses among U.S. hispanics vary by region: CDC

October 11, 2012
(HealthDay)—Hispanic Americans are diagnosed with HIV infection nearly three times as often as whites, but rates and causes differ by region, a new study finds. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Herpes virus infection drives HIV infection among non-injecting drug users in New York

June 28, 2014
HIV and its transmission has long been associated with injecting drug use, where hypodermic syringes are used to administer illicit drugs. Now, a newly reported study by researchers affiliated with New York University's Center ...

In US, HIV diagnoses drop—except among some gay men

July 19, 2014
The rate of HIV diagnoses in the United States has dropped more than 30 percent over the past decade, but is on the rise among certain gay men, researchers said Saturday.

Urban HIV infection mainly due to male-male sexual contact

November 30, 2012
(HealthDay)—More than half of HIV infections in metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), smaller metropolitan areas, and nonmetropolitan areas in the United States and Puerto Rico can be attributed to male-to-male sexual ...

Do men who have sex with men underestimate their HIV risk and miss out on preventive PrEP?

June 23, 2014
Men who have sex with men (MSM) have a disproportionately high risk of acquiring HIV, and unprotected sex between men accounts for most new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. Yet this population tends to underestimate their HIV risk ...

Recommended for you

HIV-1 genetic diversity is higher in vaginal tract than in blood during early infection

January 18, 2018
A first-of-its-kind study has found that the genetic diversity of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) is higher in the vaginal tract than in the blood stream during early infection. This finding, published in PLOS ...

War in Ukraine has escalated HIV spread in the country: study

January 15, 2018
Conflict in Ukraine has increased the risk of HIV outbreaks throughout the country as displaced HIV-infected people move from war-affected regions to areas with higher risk of transmission, according to analysis by scientists.

Researchers offer new model for uncovering true HIV mortality rates in Zambia

January 12, 2018
A new study that seeks to better ascertain HIV mortality rates in Zambia could provide a model for improved national and regional surveillance approaches, and ultimately, more effective HIV treatment strategies.

New drug capsule may allow weekly HIV treatment

January 9, 2018
Researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women's Hospital have developed a capsule that can deliver a week's worth of HIV drugs in a single dose. This advance could make it much easier for patients to adhere to the strict schedule ...

New long-acting, less-toxic HIV drug suppresses virus in humanized mice

January 8, 2018
A team of Yale researchers tested a new chemical compound that suppresses HIV, protects immune cells, and remains effective for weeks with a single dose. In animal experiments, the compound proved to be a promising new candidate ...

Usage remains low for pill that can prevent HIV infection

January 8, 2018
From gritty neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles to clinics in Kenya and Brazil, health workers are trying to popularize a pill that has proven highly effective in preventing HIV but which—in their view—remains woefully ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.