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UAlbany, SUNY Downstate Tackle Ukraine HIV Epidemic

While much of the world has taken steps to curb HIV, the people of Ukraine continue to face significant challenges in their fight to halt the spread of the deadly disease. The epidemic has only grown worse as shortages of medical supplies and inadequate testing capabilities limit the response of the healthcare community.

[Photo: HIV testing in Ukraine is increasingly difficult amid shortages of medical supplies and inadequate facilities. Photo courtesy UNICEF.]

To support efforts to eradicate this issue, the University at Albany and SUNY Downstate Medical are partnering to expand HIV testing and training with the help of a new five year, $1.5 million Training Grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center.

Building upon their recent work in the Republic of Georgia and Kazakhstan, the new collaboration through the New York State International Training and Research Program (NYS-ITRP) is designed to expand HIV testing and training in Ukraine. The program aims to improve HIV and infectious diseases research capacity throughout the Eastern Europe/Central Asia region.

“The goal of the Ukraine HIV Research Training Program is to build capacity in implementation science research that addresses gaps in HIV care in Ukraine,” said Mr. John Justino, director of the School of Public Health’s Center for Global Health. “Ukraine has one of the highest burdens of HIV among European countries, with an epidemic that is primarily concentrated among people who inject drugs, with rising rates among men who have sex with men.”

Key collaborating institutions in Ukraine include the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy School of Public Health and the Ukrainian Institute for Public Health Policy, a research-focused non-governmental organization.

Training opportunities developed through the funding will include support for a Master’s degree at Kyiv, enhancement of the school’s HIV epidemiology curriculum as well as a nine-month training program certificate involving graduate level coursework at UAlbany’s School of Public Health.

“Ultimately, we plan to collaboratively develop a Certificate in HIV Research and Implementation Science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy School of Public Health,” added Mr. Justino.

NYS-ITRP began their work in 1994, addressing similar HIV epidemic conditions in the newly independent nations of Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.

“While HIV incidence is declining globally, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are regions where HIV infections continue to rise,” says Distinguished Service professor Dr. Jack DeHovitz, the director of the program. “This new grant, combined with a similar grant awarded to the NYS-ITRP for Kazakhstan in 2016, places SUNY Downstate and its affiliates as a leader in HIV research training in the region,” Dr. DeHovitz said.

“SUNY can be proud of the work that the New York State International Research and Training Program has done over the years,” said Dr. Laura Schweitzer, interim dean of UAlbany’s School of Public Health. “Together with Downstate Medical, UAlbany has have trained dozens and dozens of scientists from Central and Eastern Europe; most of whom have returned to their home countries to become leading national researchers and to help create new schools of public health.”

Despite notable improvements in responding to the epidemic, access to antiretroviral therapy remains low and institutional barriers impede access to care by substance users. Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, is home to the continent’s most volatile HIV epidemic with an adult prevalence of 1.1 percent.

It has experienced multiple crises since it emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991 including two revolutions, the 2014 Crimean invasion, and the ongoing conflict in east and southern Ukraine.

Independence from the Soviet Union also coincided with the emergence of an IDU epidemic. It is estimated that this country of 45.5 million now has over 300,000 injection drug users, contributing to large increases in both HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections.

Training opportunities developed through this funding include the recruitment and training of HIV Research Scholars, and graduates will receive enhanced training in implementation science, biostatistics, epidemiology, and behavioral health.

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