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University of Michigan researcher earns Fulbright Scholar grant to study AIDS interventions in Africa

Examining religious leaders’ ability to address HIV, AIDS in African communities

ANN ARBOR, Mich.

University of Michigan microbiologist A. Oveta Fuller has spent her career examining viruses like herpes simplex virus (HSV) and HIV/ AIDS through the lens of a microscope to understand the most basic and intricate details of viruses.

As a former pastor with a focus on young adults and outreach for HIV and AIDS awareness, Fuller also has seen the effect the diseases can have on a community and its people.

Now, with the help of a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholar grant, Fuller will use her training in the lab and in the church to conduct a study in southern Africa, assessing local religious leaders’ ability to address HIV and AIDS in their communities. The nine-month study begins in January 2013 in the Copperbelt region of Zambia.

“The transmission of HIV and AIDS only happens in a few ways, but the sort of understanding and education about prevention isn’t there to those on the front lines,” Fuller says. “What we want to do is engage and influence clergy there who already have the trust of their communities, to get them to understand the science of HIV transmission and how it and AIDS can be prevented.”

Using qualitative and quantitative methods, Fuller and her team, which includes researchers from the Copperbelt Medical School, will assess how biological insights can transform the perspectives of religious leaders and their communities about HIV and AIDS.

Fuller says the goal is to provide clergy members with in-depth science educational tools that they can use in serving members of their community more effectively.

“Trying to do an educational intervention like this without the help of a trusted network, like clergy leaders, can be very difficult,” she says. “We want to know if and how well the science training empowers these influential leaders to go into their communities to reduce stigma and reframe common perceptions about HIV and AIDS prevention and management.”

Fuller says her background as not only a scientist but as a ministry leader will help in conveying the project’s goals to clergy members in Zambia.

“They appreciate that I understand both responsibilities – from theology and helping the community, to the science as well,” she says.

If the Fulbright validity study proves successful, and areas where religious leaders are given the science based training  do see an increase in HIV/AIDS reframing and prevention, Fuller says the ramifications for interventions in a similar approach are broad.

“That sort of conclusion could apply to almost any community,” she says. “As long as a trusted leader in a given community is provided the training to truly understand the science advances, they can be highly effective help to properly educate his or her people. This type of approach could be applicable in countless places across the globe.”

Fuller is one of approximately 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2012-13. 

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For more information about Dr. Fuller and her work, visit http://www.med.umich.edu/microbio/bio/fuller.htm.

For more information about the Fulbright Program, visit http://fulbright.state.gov.

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