USFSP post-doctoral fellow receives grant to research, reduce HIV stigma in Tampa Bay

USF St. Petersburg post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Kemesha Gabbidon, believes the most effective solutions to an issue emerge when the voices of those who are most affected take priority. 

Using funding from a $70,000 Transformative Grant awarded by the Gilead COMPASS Initiative, Gabbidon will implement a community program in Tampa Bay that aims to tackle the stigma surrounding an HIV diagnosis, with the goal of reducing new diagnoses through preventative education and increased health screenings. 

The southern United States is in the midst of what the Southern AIDS Coalition categorizes as a "crisis," with new HIV diagnoses on the rise year after year. Although only 38 percent of the country's population resides in the south, southern states represent 52 percent of new diagnoses. In 2017, Florida ranked third in the nation in the number of new HIV cases, according to the CDC, with Tampa Bay's HIV-positive population second only to that of Miami.

Gabbidon explains that her program, currently in its nascency, will coalesce around insights shared in focus groups and one-on-one interviews with individuals living with HIV in the Tampa region. She notes that societal factors including racism, homophobia, and transphobia play a role in limiting the services available to the communities who are most heavily affected by HIV/AIDS. 

"There's a stigma in communities that are already marginalized, who are experiencing disproportionate burdens of HIV. There's a fear of being tested, diagnosed, and ostracized. … This is about us tackling those factors. There's not an easy or quick solution, but once we can identify the way in which [stigma] manifests, it will be easier for us to address," Gabbidon says. 

This approach to addressing stigma at the structural level, through a community-based model, is partly inspired by the SEERS (Stigma-reduction through Education, Empowerment, and Research) program, which was implemented in Nakuru, Kenya by USFSP Psychology Professor, Dr. Tiffany Chenneville, in 2015. SEERS partners with Springs of Hope, an orphanage housing children affected by HIV. To date, more than 8,000 youth in Nakuru, between the ages of 13-24, have received training through the stigma-reduction program.

Dr. Gabbidon believes building bridges through personal contact with individuals living with or affected by HIV is a crucial element in reducing stigma, and in creating opportunities to equip vulnerable communities with life skills that prevent the spread of HIV.

"One of the four components [of SEERS] is info-based approaches, but what that info looks like can be very different in different communities -- and so can skill building," Gabbidon says. 

She notes, "I can't tell [people living with HIV] what stigma looks like in this community. They need to tell me because it's what they say -- what they need -- that matters. … I feel strongly about the community being a part of whatever kind of intervention is decided for them -- from the beginning all the way through. They should have ownership and should be able to implement it as they see fit."

Gabbidon was awarded the Transformative Grant in January. She expects to finalize community partnerships and begin working with focus groups in March. 

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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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