Sociology students help protect a vulnerable population from HIV

By:    Date: 04-27-2017

ARTICLE AND PHOTOS BY LANE STAFFORD

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Sociology of HIV/AIDS is a class many students are surprised to see in The University of Alabama course catalog.

“The title of the course is what really drew me in,” says Joshua Smith, a senior from Decatur, Ala., majoring in African-American studies.

Smith says the course inspired his decision to focus on infectious diseases in medical school.

HIV has been called the “sociological epidemic” because it often affects those who are poor and marginalized. SOC 360 Sociology of HIV/AIDS works to dissect the social inequalities, history, myths and issues of the disease.

An HIV testing kit | ABOVE: Students offer HIV educational materials to community members in the waiting area of the Tuscaloosa County Parole and Probation Office and tell them free testing is available.

“I can personally say before this course I was very ignorant when it came to HIV/AIDS,” says Sharnelle Anthony, a senior from New Castle, Del., majoring in public relations. “The impact this class has had on me is phenomenal, and I have a much better understanding of the disease physically and socially.”

Students study how the disease is – and isn’t – transmitted, its relationship to same-sex activity, sex work and illicit drug use and its symptoms and treatment. They learn HIV is spread most often through heterosexual contact (on a global basis), and that it is a manageable disease that can affect anyone.

Students use their newfound knowledge to help people in Tuscaloosa County’s parole and probation programs learn about their risks for HIV and get tested. Convicted offenders are a high-risk population for HIV.

In recent years, overcrowding in Alabama prisons has led to the early release of many non-violent offenders to parole and probation programs. Some are sent directly to community corrections programs rather than prison.

An unforeseen issue with this transition is that these individuals do not have access to the HIV education, testing and treatment resources they would have in prison.

To help solve this problem, Dr. Bronwen Lichtenstein, a professor of sociology at UA, partnered with West Alabama AIDS Outreach and the Tuscaloosa County Parole and Probation Office to offer HIV education and testing in the probation/parole office.

“I felt that it was imperative to provide HIV testing for a high-risk population in our area,” Lichtenstein says. “We knew that HIV testing and treatment at probation and parole offices could help to save lives and prevent transmission in the community. We wanted to bring the number down.”

HIV-diagnoses rates in the South are significantly higher than rates in other regions of the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alabama faces “an HIV epidemic of moderate magnitude” compared to other states, and an estimated one in six people living with HIV in Alabama is unaware of his or her infection, per the State of Alabama HIV Surveillance 2014 Report. Tuscaloosa County ranks fifth among Alabama’s 67 counties for infection rates.

Dr. Lichtenstein and UA social work doctoral student and Tuscaloosa native Brad Barber, who has been a probation officer in Tuscaloosa County for five years, worked on a pilot project in Fall 2015.

Lichtenstein and Barber divided participants into two groups. The first group was composed of newly sentenced probationers who received HIV education from West Alabama AIDS Outreach personnel at the conclusion of their probation orientation meeting. The second group was comprised of parolees and probationers who were already in the system and had not received HIV education, but were invited to participate in free HIV testing at the probation/parole office.

Thirty percent of people in the first group volunteered for testing, while only 3 percent of the second group volunteered, showing prior HIV education significantly influences willingness to being tested.

The top scholastic journal for AIDS research, the Journal of the International AIDS Society, published the study’s findings in July of 2016.

Because of the project’s success, the Alabama Department of Public Health has funded West Alabama AIDS Outreach to expand the program to seven rural probation offices within the 10 counties it serves.

Lichtenstein began involving undergraduate students in her SOC 360 class in Fall 2016. Students offer HIV educational materials to community members in the waiting area of the probation and parole office and tell them free testing is available. They answer questions about HIV testing, create and distribute flyers and accompany volunteers to a room in the office where Ann James, prevention education coordinator for West Alabama AIDS Outreach, conducts testing.

During Fall 2016, approximately 217 parolees and probationers accepted students’ invitations to be tested for HIV. The 20 students in the SOC 360 class spent 76 hours at the Tuscaloosa County Probation and Parole Office, educating community members about HIV and encouraging them to be tested.

UA students with Ann James, who conducts HIV testing at the probation and parole office as prevention education coordinator for West Alabama AIDS Outreach.

Both Barber and Lichtenstein say parolees and probationers are more willing to be tested for HIV when a third party outside the legal system discusses it with them.

“Officers are essentially there to find out if the convicted offenders have violated probation,” Lichtenstein says. “If they’ve used drugs or any illegal activity, they can be arrested on the spot, so it’s not a great place to ask if they would like to be tested for HIV.”

UA students and WAAO are therefore an essential component of the project’s success, she adds.

Anthony says the information she learned through the course wasn’t relegated to the classroom or probation office.

“I love to share my experience with people like my mom, my sister and even my roommates,” she says. “It’s not only beneficial for me to share my knowledge because it keeps me sharp, but it’s also beneficial for them because there is so much stigma behind the disease, especially in the U.S.”

Barber says the partnership among the probation and parole office, West Alabama AIDS Outreach and Dr. Lichtenstein’s class was crucial to the program.

“This project was a three-legged stool,” Barber says. “Without the help of all three parties, the program wouldn’t have worked, but together, we were able to build something great.”

For more information about SOC 360 Sociology of HIV/AIDS, contact Dr. Bronwen Lichtenstein at 205-348-7782 or blichten@ua.edu.