Preventing Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among Adolescents to Combat HIV — Dr. Tashuna Albritton

by Lylia Saurel

Newly diagnosed sexually transmitted diseases have been on the rise among adolescents and young adults. People aged 15-24 accounted for almost half of the 26 million new cases that occurred in the United States in 2018, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CUNY School of Medicine assistant professor Tashuna Albritton is leading a research effort to reduce sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, among adolescents and young adults with the long-term aim of ending the HIV epidemic.

In collaboration with the Alabama Department of Public Health, she is focusing her research on sexual reproductive health services and care for young Black females in rural Alabama. All participants live 30 minutes or more from a health provider making it harder to access care.

The research is part of the HIV Epidemic National Strategy Plan for the United States, which hopes to end the HIV epidemic by 2030, with a 75% reduction in new HIV infections by 2025.

Dr. Albritton will gather two distinct sets of data for her research. The first set will focus on rural Black adolescents ages 13-17 and their mothers, since parents are the primary role model for children and influence sexual reproductive health. The second set will focus on rural young adult Black women ages 18-29 to understand what their sexual reproductive health experiences are like as adults who are able to make their own choices.

“The goal is to have a multi-level generational perspective on rural Black women’s experiences and sexual reproductive health services”

The CDC has identified Alabama as a state with a disproportionate number of HIV-positive individuals, especially those living in rural areas. According to the 2020 STD Surveillance Report, Alabama nationally ranked fourth for the most reported Gonorrhea cases and ninth for Chlamydia cases.

Over the years, Albritton has primarily conducted research and prevention interventions geared toward reducing HIV and sexual disease transmission among Black adolescents and minorities in rural communities. Her projects often collect data on pairs composed of the subject and their romantic partner or parent. Her research has also included collecting clinical perspectives and practice data from physicians caring for adolescent populations.

The decision to focus on women living in rural areas stems from the desire to better understand if this population is seeking the help it needs and to understand their experiences with the healthcare system.

While Albritton has conducted research in the New York City area and collaborated with researchers in France, she said that her work follows surveillance data that often highlights the lack of medical practitioners in rural areas, such as Alabama which is a very rural state.

“It’s mostly in the southeast, and a lot of it has to do with folks not getting tested, not knowing their status, not having access to providers, and not wanting to contend with HIV-related stigma,” she said.

In this upcoming collaboration with Alabama, which is funded by a federal grant from the National Institute of Mental health, her role will be to work with a task force from Alabama to understand how to best provide an intervention to the targeted population.

“The process of working with the committee is a participatory research, meaning that the community and the state are leading the way to their own health betterment and health outcomes, as it pertains to HIV,” she said. “Instead of the researcher implying what’s best, it is really the community working in  phases to establish what are the best interventions for the state.”

This research is especially meaningful to her, as HIV disproportionately affects communities of color. She also explained that, despite the literature showing greater trust between participants and researchers who look like them, faculty of color are not the primary group of researchers who get funded to do the work.

While the illness is not terminal anymore, most of the funds allocated to HIV are currently used for specialized care for already infected individuals, and only a small percentage goes to prevention.

“We all know from the data, that prevention is cheaper than treating people because the treatment goes on as long as they live,” Albritton said.

Through her research, Albritton said she hopes to develop educational programs that parents can use to support and prioritize HIV prevention over treatment as positive individuals need to be maintained for the rest of their lives and are at risk for other infections that could lead to premature death.

“Our goal is to have healthy communities, healthy states, a healthy nation, and that starts with educating and intervening in areas for younger populations, and so that as they grow, they are as healthy as they possibly can be,” she said.

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