Preventing HIV in adolescents by changing behaviors

Geri Donenberg

Geri Donenberg: Behavior changes must “address the broader individual, interpersonal and structural determinants of health.” — Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Geri Donenberg has spent much of her career focused on adolescent HIV prevention by developing programs that encourage behavior change through building relationships, education and communication.

Donenberg is principal investigator on four National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trials to reduce HIV risk in vulnerable populations and improve medication adherence. She has received continuous funding by the NIH since 1999. She’s among the top 50 funded researchers at UIC, and has received more than $25 million in federal grants.

Donenberg hopes her programs will help interrupt what she calls “poor health trajectories” that can lead to HIV and AIDS. Poverty, mental illness, risky sexual behavior and substance abuse are significant drivers of poor health trajectories, she said.

“I had a strong desire to affect change in adolescents and children when these problems start to arise and the cornerstone is behavioral change,” said Donenberg, associate dean of research in the UIC School of Public Health and professor of medicine.

“Behavior — using condoms, taking medicines, having risky sex — these are the factors that can be changed to reduce new HIV infections, but only if prevention efforts address the broader individual, interpersonal and structural determinants of health.”

Donenberg is internationally recognized for her development of the social personal framework of HIV-risk, which emphasizes the importance of parental monitoring and communication, mental health, peers and romantic partners on adolescent sexual risk- taking and substance use.

Her program that focuses on mother-daughter relationships, IMARA, is so popular that its graduates often ask if they can take it again.

“Strengthening mother-daughter relationships is one way that we know health outcomes for both can be improved, especially if the daughters can feel safe talking to their moms about sexual activity,” she said.

Her newest study will test whether PHAT Life, an HIV-prevention program for juvenile offenders that she and her team developed, is effective when delivered by young adults formerly involved in juvenile justice. The new project will provide jobs for young ex-offenders.

Donenberg also directs UIC’s Community Outreach Intervention Projects, community-based clinics focused on reducing HIV among drug users in Chicago. She hopes to purchase a second outreach van.

“We need to reach people who won’t come to hospitals or clinics to test for HIV and link them to care,” she said.

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