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CHIBE, UPenn Researchers Seek to Combat HIV in South Africa Using Behavioral Insights

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Photo of Alison and Harsha headshots together

Two CHIBE directors and University of Pennsylvania faculty members are leading a team that has proposed to use behavioral insights to end the world’s largest HIV epidemic.

Alison Buttenheim, PhD, MBA, Interim Director of the Center for Health Incentives & Behavioral Economics, and Harsha Thirumurthy, PhD, Associate Director of CHIBE, are vying for the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition, a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving one of the most critical problems of our time. The ambitious proposal was the University of Pennsylvania’s selection for the 100&Change competition and has been submitted in partnership with experts at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and Discovery South Africa.

Their proposal addresses “last mile” problems that hinder efforts to end South Africa’s HIV epidemic by implementing proven behavioral interventions that will increase people’s utilization of highly effective, widely available HIV services and shut down HIV transmission – a radical approach to ensure that existing biomedical solutions and health resources are effective.

“Following major scientific advances and an unprecedented mobilization of resources, it is finally possible to imagine a world without HIV/AIDS,” Dr. Thirumurthy said. “Our academic-public-private sector partnership will scale up low-cost, behavioral interventions in South Africa and ensure that HIV prevention and treatment services are more widely used. With strategic action now, we can end HIV in South Africa and create a pathway for global epidemic control.”

Rewards, use of social networks, mobile phone-based reminders, and nudges are some of the tools they have in mind to promote engagement and retention in HIV services. The team is also considering how to combat the fear and misconceptions that prevent some individuals from seeking treatment.

“The MacArthur competition offers us a once-in-a-generation chance to end HIV in South Africa,” Dr. Buttenheim said. “We would be thrilled to scale these proven approaches across regions of the country with the highest HIV prevalence and help eliminate the social, economic and health burden of HIV.”

Currently, there are 7.2 million people living with HIV in South Africa, and 740 new HIV infections occur each day. Individuals between the ages of 15 and 34 years old are particularly at risk for infection, and in the past decade, this population has not fully utilized effective prevention and treatment services – thus the need for behavior change solutions.

Watch the video to learn more.  

Dr. Buttenheim is the Patricia Bleznak Silverstein and Howard A. Silverstein Endowed Term Chair in Global Women’s Health, Associate Professor of Nursing in the Department of Family and Community Health at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Associate Professor of Health Policy in the Division of Health Policy in Perelman School of Medicine, and also Director of Engagement at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics.

In addition to serving as an Associate Director of CHIBE, Dr. Thirumurthy is also an Associate Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at UPenn’s Perelman School of Medicine.