Partnership to encourage HIV/AIDS research

The Yale School of Public Health has formalized a 16-year-old partnership with Saint Petersburg State University in Russia to help combat HIV/AIDS.

On October 11th, the universities agreed to create a new behavioral health research center based in St. Petersburg that will produce research on HIV/AIDS public health interventions. The two Universities have collaborated since 1997 in search of solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemics spreading in both St. Petersburg and New Haven.

“This will provide a formal framework for a stable, ongoing relationship,” said dean of the Yale School of Public Health Paul Cleary.

The long-term vision of the center is to integrate research, education and teaching from both countries, said executive director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS (CIRA) at the Yale School of Public Health Elaine O’Keefe. The partnership between the universities is already strong, and the agreement will help sustain the relationship between the institutions, she said. Currently, Russian researchers come to Yale to study how to conduct HIV/AIDS research and return to Russia with the new skills, a practice that will continue with the most recent agreement between the Universities.

Since the agreement itself does not provide money for the initiative, the universities hope that the partnership will attract funding from outside sources, said Robert Heimer, a professor of epidemiology and leader of a team of Yale researchers who study HIV/AIDS in Russia.

“We expect that the memorandum will convince funders that both universities are committed to creating sustainable interactions and partnerships,” he wrote in an email from Russia. “We hope more broadly that projects in other areas of university scholarship can be promoted since each university now recognizes the willingness of the other to serve as a productive partner.”

In 1997, former dean of the Yale School of Public Health Michael Merson founded CIRA with University President Peter Salovey to bring together scientists of different disciplines to research solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Merson soon reached out to collaborate with colleagues at St. Petersburg State University, a school based in a city with similar HIV/AIDS problems to New Haven.

“HIV transmission in Russia is driven by intravenous drug use, which is exactly the case in New Haven,” Merson said.

Soon after the initial collaboration, the universities secured a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health that is now in its second renewal.

HIV/AIDS came to Russia in the 1990s, with the sudden uptick in heroin use and trafficking after the Soviet Union opened its borders to surrounding countries in 1989.

The rapidly growing nature of the Russian HIV/AIDS epidemic and the fact that successfully addressing public health issues requires a long-term commitment makes the sustained nature of the partnership important, said Kaveh Khoshnood SPH ’89 GRD ’95, Professor of Epidemiology who worked on the partnership in its early years.

“Having an impact on epidemics takes a long, long time,” he said. “We’re just now beginning to see the fruits of the effort.”

With around 1.8 million intravenous drug users and around 1 million of its 143 million population currently HIV-positive, the World Bank estimates that by 2020, Russia will lose 20,000 people annually to the disease.

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