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Doctoral student receives grant to expand HIV testing among young African American women

Melanie Moore.
Melanie Moore.

A Virginia Commonwealth University health psychology doctoral student has received a two-year, $69,194 grant to launch a research project aimed at increasing HIV testing among African American young adult women.

Melanie Moore, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, received the grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities in the National Institutes of Health.

“Despite the fact that there is a high rate of undiagnosed HIV infections among young adults, and that high rates of undiagnosed HIV infection lead to increases in HIV transmission to others, very little research has focused on strategies to increase HIV testing,” she said. “I want to change that.”

Undiagnosed HIV infections are a significant problem among young adults, as more than 50 percent of people ages 18-24 who are HIV positive are unaware of their positive status.

Moore’s study, “Developing Evidenced-Based Health Messages to Increase HIV Testing Among African American Young Adult Women,” will seek to develop evidence-based, tailored HIV testing messages for young African American women, and will also test the effectiveness of exposure to those messages on their likelihood of getting tested for HIV.

“I believe that increasing HIV testing will effectively reduce rates of HIV transmission by simply increasing the number of people who are aware of their status,” Moore said. “HIV-positive individuals who are aware of their status and are linked to heath care are able to obtain treatment to lower their viral load, which makes them less infectious. HIV-positive individuals who are aware of their status are also much more likely to engage in safe sex compared to an HIV positive person who is not aware of their status.”

Among all age groups, adults ages 18-24 are the least likely to have been tested for HIV.

“Unfortunately, young adults are in a developmental period where they often perceive themselves to be invincible to many potential harms,” Moore said. “This is due to the fact that the judgment and decision-making portions of the brain are not yet fully developed. So even if young adults engage in HIV risk behaviors, such as having unprotected sex or multiple sexual partners, they usually do not believe that HIV is something that could ever really affect them. The lack of perceiving HIV as a real risk is a primary reason why many do not get tested for HIV.”

While this study will collect data from African American women, Moore said it is the beginning of a series of studies she is planning that will involve developing several tailored messages for specific young adult populations.

Moore, who has been involved with HIV prevention research for several years, previously conducted a study among college students that examined differences in reasons for HIV testing. That study, “Ethnic Comparisons in HIV Testing Attitudes, HIV Testing, and Predictors of HIV Testing Among Black and White College Students,” found that the reasons people gave for getting tested for HIV varied by race and ethnicity.

“Factors such as a greater number of sexual partners and more positive HIV testing attitudes were significant predictors of HIV testing among white students, whereas being in a relationship predicted HIV testing among black students,” she said. “Given that factors deemed important in influencing HIV testing decisions differed among groups, I wanted to expand my research to begin developing tailored messages to increase HIV testing for different subgroups of young adults, based on the differential factors that motivate them to get tested for HIV.”

The reasons commonly cited by young adults about why they do not get tested for HIV include the perception that they are not at risk, fear and stigma, Moore said.

“Many people do not realize that HIV is not a death sentence anymore,” she said. “Due to advances in treatment options HIV is now more of a chronic illness, similar to diabetes or heart disease, that can be effectively managed for those who remain linked to health care.”

Colleges and universities, she added, could play an increased role in helping to encourage students to get tested.

“It would be great if college campuses were able to direct more resources toward promoting routine HIV testing among all students, in addition to engaging more resources to promote the importance of preventative health testing among students in general,” she said. “If we are able to increase the rates of routine HIV testing among young adults, we will be able to effectively decrease both the number undiagnosed HIV infections and the rate of new transmissions.”

 

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