Drexel University was announced as a winner of the DREAMS Innovation Challenge, an $85 million program to reduce new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan African countries.
The DREAMS Innovation Challenge grant will support MAMAS (Mentoring Adolescent Mothers At School), a project which seeks to encourage new adolescent mothers to finish their schooling by enlisting the guidance of “mentor mothers.” The program will be implemented over the next two years in South Africa.
“Our program is intended to address a key social determinant of health: education,” said Dr. Ali Groves, lead researcher on the MAMAS project, and an assistant professor of community health and prevention who joined the Dornsife School of Public Health this fall. “Educational attainment has been associated with increased employment, resources and capacity to make health-related decisions — each of which, in turn, can positively impact a myriad of health outcomes, especially HIV.”
A major contributing factor to HIV prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa is a lack of safe-sex practices which can be reliably measured by the rates of unintended pregnancies among young women and adolescent girls. In South Africa’s Umlazi Township, where Groves’ project will focus, a third of all births occur among adolescent mothers.
HIV prevalence among 15-24 year-olds in Umlazi’s province, KwaZulu-Natal, is 12 percent, but among those in that age group who have been pregnant, HIV prevalence more than doubles to 25.8 percent.
Roughly two thirds of adolescent mothers never return to school. Research has shown that education significantly impacts the health of both mothers and their children, often resulting in the reduction of risky behavior that could lead to HIV infection.
Research in both Malawi and the United States has shown that peer mentoring can make a transition back to school after having a child easier. The mentor mothers in the MAMAS project are a group of women chosen by Groves’ team who are between 20 and 24 years old and finished their secondary education after having a child. It will be their full-time job to provide peer support to the younger mothers assigned to them.
In the end, Dr. Groves hopes her new program will improve the resiliency of young mothers in South Africa and make returning to school much more common. With an increase in education levels, Groves and her team aim to see risky behaviors leading to HIV infections decrease. Moreover, researchers hope that a boost in resiliency and knowledge among mothers will be passed along to children and increase their likelihood to avoid risky behaviors relating to HIV.
If Groves’ program proves effective in South Africa, it could be applied to the other countries in Africa affected by the HIV epidemic, or adapted for other populations of under-resourced youth who need extra support to return to and stay in school.
The DREAMS Innovation Challenge aims to accelerate progress toward the target of achieving a 40 percent reduction in new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women in the highest-burden areas of a group of 10 sub-Saharan African countries by the end of 2017. It is an $85 million investment funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR); Janssen Pharmaceutica NV (Janssen), one of the Janssen pharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson; and ViiV Healthcare.