February 20, 2009

Vanderbilt’s role in global HIV fight growing

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At the conference, Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., center, talks with Justin Mandala, left, and Chewe Luo, M.D. (photo by Joe Howell)

Vanderbilt’s role in global HIV fight growing

A unique meeting held here late last week was the first step in bringing Vanderbilt into a consortium of the highest-level international aid organizations working to control the spread of HIV.

Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health (VIGH) hosted the consultative meeting with UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) and its partners to examine programs meant to halt transmission of HIV from mothers to their infants in the world's poorest regions.

“We were pleased that UNICEF selected Nashville for their global consultation. UNICEF and their United Nations partners are seeking to upgrade the evaluation of outcomes for the larger global programs seeking to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV,” said Vermund. “They found us to be an ideal partner for this effort.”

Fifty-four members of UNICEF, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NIH, and others from institutions around the world gathered for the two-day workshop.

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., left, and Julie Hudson, M.D., talk with UNICEF’s René Ekpini, M.D., M.P.H., at an event following the conference. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., left, and Julie Hudson, M.D., talk with UNICEF’s René Ekpini, M.D., M.P.H., at an event following the conference. (photo by Anne Rayner)

“It's a great honor for Vanderbilt to host these world leaders in global health,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

“Sten Vermund and the VIGH have long been involved in HIV/AIDS research and prevention, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with UNICEF on such a crucial health issue. We are in a position to make significant contributions to this effort since patient-oriented outcomes research is one of the fastest growing areas of research in the Medical Center.”

Chewe Luo, M.D., senior adviser for the HIV and AIDS section at UNICEF, agreed, saying the group turned to Vanderbilt to help collect and organize much-needed data that can be used to improve programs. UNICEF has regular working relationships with academic medical centers like Johns Hopkins and Columbia University. Luo said it was gratifying to extend partnership on this project to Vanderbilt with its expertise in evaluation of program effectiveness.

“In this economic time, it is important for UNICEF to leverage our HIV programs with evidence that focuses on evaluation and measurement. Proving programs are both effective and cost efficient is critically important, and that is a difficult task when there are different epidemiologic issues in different regions and countries. We must ensure that we have accountability and with Sten's long-time expertise we felt it was opportune to tap into Vanderbilt as part of this push to find programs that will work,” Luo said.

At the meeting, the group looked at aspects of programs including use of antiretrovirals for pregnant HIV-infected mothers, infant feeding practices, access to care for mothers and infants, diagnostic challenges and novel strategies to evaluate each aspect of the “prevention cascade.”

“The overall context of mothers' and children's health is critical to improve two-year survival for HIV-exposed infants,” Vermund said.

“I was impressed that our visitors from five continents could achieve as much consensus on how to harmonize these critical indicators,” Vermund said.

Vanderbilt will continue to be involved in planning the evaluation of programs in order to assist global aid groups in spending scarce resources with the greatest impact on preventing transmission of HIV to children.