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Researchers Fight the Stigma of HIV/AIDS

Faculty members at the UCLA Semel Institute are working with the Thai government to use innovative treatment models to battle the social and psychological side effects facing Thai families affected by the virus.

This article was first published in The Daily Bruin.

Robert Faturechi, Daily Bruin Enterprise Editor

THE HIV/AIDS EPIDEMIC in Southeast Asia may seem like a faraway problem to many at UCLA, but for some university researchers, the crisis couldn't be more pressing.

Faculty members at the UCLA Semel Institute are working with the Thai government to use innovative treatment models to battle the social and psychological side effects facing Thai families affected by the virus.

The goal is to provide these families with the tools to build a supportive social network around HIV positive relatives and instill the notion that contracting the virus does not have to be a death sentence, with the right drugs.

"A lot of these people, when they first find out, are devastated," said Sung-Jae Lee, a researcher at Semel, and project director for the Thailand program.

"They start drinking alcohol, not taking care of their kids. They don't really have a reason to live."

The Thailand program is part of a larger organization within Semel called the Global Center for Children and Families, which has researchers working on challenges facing families, from South Africa to China.

The Semel Institute's Thailand researchers work in collaboration with the Thai government's ministry of public health and are funded by the U.S. government.

Their local district hospitals span much of the Southeast Asian country with two in the northeast city of Korat and two in the northern city of Chiang Rai.

The project started in 2005, when Semel researchers and their Thai collaborators began recruiting more than 400 families to take part in an innovative treatment model.

About half of the HIV positive participants receive only basic medical care, and the other half are hoisted into what Semel researchers call an "intervention."

Over the course of two years, the HIV positive participants and their families are counseled on a series of ways to maintain social bonds and a sense of self-worth despite the virus.

"Telling your friends that you're HIV positive helps," Lee said. "We try to give them concrete steps to see if they're ready to disclose their status."

So far, Lee said, the project has been successful.

"The level of stigma they see is intimately related to how depressed they get," Lee said.

If the project continues to yield positive results, researchers hope to use the model to help other Thai families.

Right now, the nature of the epidemic is that it's spread to the general population," said Lee.