By Taylor Estes
CAROLINA REPORTER & NEWS
Two professors at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health have started a program that aims to increase the number of patients who remain in ongoing treatment for HIV infection.
Xiaoming Li and Bankole Olatosi are the co-principal investigators of a five-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health that aims to use “big data science” to find out why patients aren’t returning for treatment. They hope the research will encourage patients to continue treatment for HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, which if not treated can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
“It’s important for these patients to stay in continuous treatment. The viral load can be controlled, and the patient can stay healthier for longer," said Li, a health promotion, education and behavior professor.
“We’re using data provided by DHEC, Health Sciences South Carolina, and the South Carolina Fiscal Affairs Office to see who isn’t returning, find out why and put our resources towards resolving this problem,” Li said.
“I couldn’t do this without Dr. Banky; he knows the details and the deep science of the disease and it’s treatment," Li said. Olatosi is a clinical associate professor in health services policy and management.
According to the CDC, HIV is a disease that weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. It is transmitted through body fluids.
“The HIV virus attacks T cells, which are white blood cells that fight infection. With a lowered number of T cells, HIV can transform into AIDS, which is the last stage of the disease where the immune system essentially shuts down," Li said.
South Carolina ranks among the top states in the nation with the highest rates of HIV infections. With the infection rate on the rise, health professionals are concerned to find that only half of those who are HIV positive return for ongoing treatment.
When HIV positive patients receive continued treatment of the virus, they can greatly reduce the presence of virus cells in the body and thus keep the immune system stronger than it would be without treatment.
“We’re seeing that some patients don’t return for treatment due to the treatment location being too far from their home, or there are financial factors that discourage them from getting treated. Our job is to identify these people and use funding to address the problems." Li said.
Once these groups are identified through the data, Li and Olatosi's project team will contact them to encourage the patients to return to treatment and further identify how to eliminate obstacles that keep these patients from returning.