Researchers from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health received a grant from the National Institutes of Health, for HIV research and prevention in Zimbabwe.
The two-year $550,000 grant aims to evaluate and develop community pharmacies in Harare, Zimbabwe, with a focus on preventing high-risk women from contracting HIV. The project is co-led by Sandra McCoy, a professor of epidemiology at the campus School of Public Health, and Euphemia Sibanda, an epidemiologist and implementation researcher at the Centre for Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Research Zimbabwe, or CeSHHAR Zimbabwe.
“Globally, one in three female sex workers are living with HIV,” McCoy said in an email. “However, despite their heightened risk, many people who engage in sex work face tremendous stigma when they access health services at health clinics, which can make them hesitant to engage with highly effective HIV prevention services.”
In an effort to mitigate this stigma and other barriers, the project will distribute HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, at community pharmacies, focusing on young females who engage in sex work, McCoy added.
However, PrEP will be just as accessible for other sex workers, including male and transgender people.
“We hypothesize that by working with people who engage in sex work, pharmacists, and shop owners to co-design a novel implementation model located in the community, we can amplify distribution of this highly effective HIV prevention method to a group of people who are most in need,” McCoy said in the email.
McCoy explained that since the first PrEP approvals about 10 years ago, implementation issues and stigma have inhibited uptake of the medication by at-risk people.
This award is part of a wave of innovative approaches to make PrEP more accessible to those who will benefit most and ensure that distribution is done in a safe and inclusive environment, especially in Zimbabwe, McCoy noted.
“People who engage in sex work in Zimbabwe face a high risk of HIV: In Zimbabwe, 1 in 2 female sex workers are living with HIV and HIV prevalence rises rapidly with age,” McCoy said in the email. “This was the right location for the research to have a high impact, if it is effective.”
McCoy added the School of Public Health has a longstanding history of collaboration with universities and community-based organizations in Zimbabwe for research and training and that they are “thrilled” to continue this “productive legacy” with CeSHHAR Zimbabwe.
At the end of the study, the team hopes to possess “actionable information” to share at a local and federal level on whether pharmacies should be considered a key community-based venue for the distribution of HIV prevention medication.
“Our hope is to amplify access to and uptake of PrEP, a highly effective HIV prevention modality, among a group of people who could greatly benefit,” McCoy said in the email.