UNSW researchers receive $6.9m for blood borne virus and STI research

11 Oct 2022
UNSW researchers receive $6.9m for blood borne virus and STI research

Three major projects, focusing on reducing stigma, community-led models and assessment of people living with chronic hepatitis B, have received funding.

UNSW Sydney researchers from the Centre for Social Research in Health (CSRH) and The Kirby Institute have been awarded more than $6.9 million over four years, in grants through the federal government’s Blood Borne Viruses (BBV) and Sexually Transmissible Infections (STI) Research Program.

Director of the CSRH at UNSW Arts, Design and Architecture, Scientia Professor Carla Treloar has received $3.6 million, Kirby Institute epidemiologist Dr Skye McGregor and Manager of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research Mr Robert Monaghan, have been awarded $1.65 million, and UNSW Scientia Fellow and Program Head, Therapeutic Research and Vaccine Program at the Kirby Institute, Professor Gail Matthews has received $1.63 million.

Scientia Professor Vlado Perkovic, Dean of UNSW Medicine & Health congratulated the researchers, and said the grants would lead to better outcomes for patients and more personalised approaches to treatments.

“These projects are an exciting development in STI and BBV health policy and practice research and offer hope for people affected by, living with or at risk of blood-borne viruses and STIs in Australia,” he said.

Prof. Treloar, who is Chief Investigator (CI) on ‘Trial of a universal precautions approach to stigma reduction in the BBV field’, said despite significant policy focus, little progress has been made in achieving reduction of stigma.

“The stigma associated with bloodborne viruses like HIV and hepatitis C continues to make very negative impacts on the quality of life of individuals and on health outcomes. The anticipation of being treated negatively is a major barrier to accessing health care.

“Our project builds on more than two decades of research with communities affected by bloodborne viruses. With this major grant, we will work in coalition with community and health agencies to develop, trial and evaluate a new type of stigma reduction program for health services. It will be nationally and internationally significant research and will help shape the global approach to stigma reduction.”

Along with Prof. Treloar, lead researchers from CSRH include Associate Professor Loren Brener and Dr Tim Broady.

The Kirby Institute’s Robert Monaghan and Dr McGregor are co-leading a project evaluating community-led models of delivering annual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Checks and aims to embed STI and BBV testing in those checks.

While there are some gaps in the delivery of STI and blood borne virus testing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Aboriginal community-controlled health services are using innovative strategies to boost clinic attendance, and comprehensive STI and BBV testing within routine health checks. A central premise of the project is co-designing strategies to encourage people to attend health services and strategies to enhance uptake of the health checks.

“We are excited to be working with Aboriginal community-controlled health services to evaluate culturally acceptable incentivised programs to engage people in annual health assessments, and the embedding of STI and BBV testing in the health assessments,” Mr Monaghan said. “Regular testing is a cornerstone of the public health response to minimising the impacts of infectious diseases, so community-led models will encourage more people to get tested in a way that is comfortable for them.

“By ensuring that STI and other blood-borne virus testing is integrated in the annual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Check program, our aim is to normalise testing and treatment in a timely period, improving health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities,” he said.

Prof. Matthews is CI on ‘REal world assessment of people living with chronic hepatitis B in Australia (REACH-B Study)’.

The research will be a longitudinal cohort study of people living with chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. By following up with people living with HBV over a long period, the study aims to better understand the HBV disease spectrum in Australia, assess treatment eligibility and uptake among people living with HBV, and to evaluate novel methods to improve links to care and treatment.

“Hepatitis B is a chronic condition that affects the liver, but can be managed with antivirals,” Prof. Matthews said. “While new infections with hepatitis B are reduced thanks to a national hepatitis B vaccination program, many people living with hepatitis B in Australia remain undiagnosed and not linked into care. It’s important that we have a comprehensive understanding of the demographics of those who are impacted by hepatitis B, so that appropriate testing, treatment and care can be delivered to those who need it.”