Battled HIV in South Africa
Claire Edington, a Johns Hopkins University senior from Wayland, Mass., has participated in a three-month clinical study on measures to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS among women in South Africa.
The 21-year-old was able to engage in this research with the assistance of the Provost's Undergraduate Research Award program, which affords Johns Hopkins students the opportunity and funding to conduct independent research during their undergraduate years. As one of about 40 PURA winners this academic year, Edington presented her research at an awards ceremony which was held at Johns Hopkins on March 16.
Last summer, Edington worked at the African Centre for Health and Population Studies, located in the remote township of Mtubatuba in the northeast province of KwaZulu Natal. Funded by the U.K. Department for International Development, the center is one of six sites working to develop safe and effective vaginal gels that would allow women to protect themselves from the HIV virus in a social, political and economic system that makes it difficult for women to ask men to use condoms, Edington said
"It's a very complex situation in which women feel that they are at high risk for HIV, but they also feel that they don't have much control in demanding that their partners use condoms," said Edington, a public health studies major. "Prevention strategies aimed exclusively at condom use just can't work when women are not in the position to refuse risky sex. That's why it's crucial that we develop a strategy that takes into account the reality of these women's lives."
During her summer research, Edington asked local Zulu women to keep "coital diaries:" accounts, often pictorial, of sexual activity, including data about frequency and types of sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal), condom use and type of partner (regular or casual). She reviewed more than 200 of these diaries, and linked that information with data about the women's HIV knowledge and perception of risk.
Her research revealed that 96 percent of the women knew that HIV could be acquired through sex with a person infected with the virus and that 94 percent worried that they were at risk for contracting HIV.
"Women felt at risk for two major reasons: 82.42 percent because they do not use condoms, and 82.32 percent because of an unfaithful partner," she said. "Yet only 53 percent of women reported ever having used a condom, and 78 percent said that they don't use condoms because their partner did not want to use them. My findings indicate that women feel that they are at high risk for HIV, but don't have much control in terms of trying to prevent it by demanding their partners use condoms."
Edington believes that her research findings support the importance of developing a microbicidal gel that women could use to protect themselves from HIV. The fact that HIV/AIDS is highly stigmatized within the rural South African community means that there is little to no discussion on how women might protect themselves, she said.
"With one of three people in the area estimated to be HIV-positive, microbicides have become increasingly promising alternative to prevention strategies, such as ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful, Use Condoms), by giving women control over their own bodies," Edington said. "Women have demonstrated a clear interest in using methods, like microbicides, that protect them from the consequences of high-risk sexual behavior that they often are unable to control."
James Goodyear, Edington's faculty mentor and associate director of the university's public health studies program, praised Edington and her work.
"Ms. Edington's PURA proposal was a focused outgrowth of her public health studies major," Goodyear said. "One of the great things about the major is [that] the diversity of courses attracts the intellectually curious like Claire. As an incoming freshman, Claire had no idea that she would major in public health studies, but her commitment to social justice and the opportunity to take courses at the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health drew her in. She has truly made the major work for her, and the world of public health has engaged a rising star!"
The Johns Hopkins University is recognized as the country's first graduate research university, and is the leader among the nation's universities in winning federal research and development grants. The opportunity to be involved in important research is one of the distinguishing characteristics of an undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins.
The Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program provides one of these research opportunities, open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing. Since 1993, about 40 students each year have been awarded up to $3,000 to propose and conduct original research; results of some projects have been published in professional journals. The awards are funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust.
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