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Monday, December 11, 2023

Academics & Research

SMART Cougars created to fight HIV, AIDS

Hispanic and African-American youth have among the lowest rates of HIV testing in Houston.

“Hispanics and African Americans account for 57 percent of the Houston metropolitan area population, but represent 82 percent of new HIV diagnoses and 73 percent of people living with HIV,” said Luis Torres, an associate professor with the college’s Center for Drug and Social Policy Research. “HIV is spreading through minority populations through unprotected sexual encounters, as opposed to sharing of needles or other high-risk behavior involving the use and abuse of drugs.”

The Graduate College of Social Work has partnered with Houston Area Community Services and Change Happens to create SMART Cougars, a project that hopes to fight HIV and AIDS in minority youth and students in the Houston area.

The SMART Cougars project that began earlier this month will take place over the next three years. It relies on rapid anonymous HIV testing and counseling, which is offered at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center and other locations throughout Houston.

Evelio Escamilla, the research administrator for the SMART Cougars project, said HIV testing should be routine for everyone in order to combat stigma and help reduce the amount of HIV and AIDS cases in high-risk youths.

“The earlier someone treats HIV, it may prevent them from infecting other people and helps keep up physical and mental health,” Escamilla said.

The rapid HIV test is minimally invasive and requires very little blood. Testing can be time-consuming, but the rapid test will provide participants will full results in about 15 minutes or less. Other free resources, such as counseling, will be available for participants who require these services.

“SMART Cougars will provide free information, education, and referral to treatment resources, if needed, for students seeking these services, in addition to free testing,” said SMART Cougars Clinical Progress Coordinator Maria Wilson.

The project was created to help educate youths and bring about greater awareness of HIV and prevention in the community.

“At a time when infection rates for the age group 18 to 25 are increasing compared to other age groups, it is important to bring awareness and education to a generation that should be HIV and AIDS free,” Escamilla said.

SMART Cougars will also be able to identify trends and risky sexual behaviors of college students.

Nefertiti Clavon, a recent UH graduate and SMART Cougars Health Promotion and Prevention Specialist, believes the project takes a holistic approach to HIV prevention.

“The high prevalence of HIV isn’t by happenstance,” Clavon said.

“There are many different factors contributing to the epidemic, but the interventions associated with SMART Cougars looks at a few factors, including mental health, substance abuse, condom negotiation skills and high risk sexual behaviors.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration funded the project. Results from this three-year project will inform the general public about the importance of HIV testing and early interventions in high-risk minority youth populations.

“We are hoping that with this project we will be able to identify college students’ behaviors as it applies not to only HIV testing behaviors but also attitudes and behaviors about safe sex practices, substance use and mental health,” Wilson said.

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