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New University of Maryland center targeting HIV launches with $138 million in federal grants

The University of Maryland School of Medicine's Institute of Human Virology announced $138 million in new funding and the creation of a Center for International Health, Education and Biosecurity. (Baltimore Sun video)

The Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine will receive $138 million in federal funds that will support the work of the newly created Center for International Health, Education and Biosecurity to build programs in Africa to combat HIV/AIDS.

The money will enable the Baltimore-based institute to continue working in countries that persistently suffer from high rates of HIV infections. The goal is to stem new infections and to find and treat more people already infected so the virus becomes more of a chronic condition, much like it is in the United States, rather than a death sentence.

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About 70 percent of the 36.7 million people worldwide living with HIV last year live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Of the 1.1 million deaths related to the disease, 800,000 were in Africa.

"We've been doing this work, but with the center we will be able to pool our strengths," said Dr. Deus Bazira Mubangizi, an assistant professor of medicine in the University of Maryland's medical school and the center's new director.

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The money comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, and is aimed at building programs in Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia. It will be doled out to six programs over five years.

It adds to hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding the university and the virology institute have been granted over more than a decade from various federal agencies through PEPFAR, a program initiated by President George W. Bush to focus more resources on HIV in Africa. President Barack Obama continued the program.

The new Center for International Health, already in the works before the grant was received, will continue the institute's work to stem deaths from people infected with HIV. The center also will extend its focus beyond HIV to address other global health threats such as Ebola, Mubangizi said.

Mubangizi was in Kenya when the announcement was made, working on the beginnings of projects in two parts of the country aimed at testing and treating people for HIV.

In a phone interview, he said the center won't change the global health goals of those at the University of Maryland, some of whom work in different departments. But its creation will pull them all together for better coordination, administration and visibility. That could lead to more funding and perhaps more personnel at Maryland.

Dr. Chris Beyrer, an associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Global Health, said many universities are forging alliances to solve complex problems around the world such as the spread of HIV. The centers often involve doctors, nurses and other clinicians, as well as professionals in engineering who can create cheap diagnostic equipment and business experts who can come up with new funding models.

He said HIV can now be treated with a once-a-day pill, much like hypertension.

"But you have to have money and resources and systems to get it to people," said Beyrer, who has collaborated with University of Maryland scientists on HIV-related projects. "When we started this, basically most people were infectious disease doctors, but we realized we need many more kinds of people. This is what the global health movement has been about, bringing people from across disciplines to solve problems in an integrated way."

A lot of infrastructure has been built in Africa in the last 20 years, he said, but more is needed, particularly in a few large countries such as Nigeria.

Calling the new Maryland center and the funding "wonderful," he said, "that level of support can allow for sustained investment in new ideas and approaches."

The $138 million in new grant funds from the CDC includes:

$20 million to partner with the Kenya Medical Research Institute to support the Kenyan Ministry of Health's efforts to improve public health practices related to infection and non-infectious diseases;

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$35 million to collaborate with the Nairobi city council and Kenyan government on boosting HIV and infectious disease services and support Kenya's first methadone treatment center;

$50 million to support HIV treatment services in Kenya's Kisii and Migori counties;

$12.5 million to support the expansion of HIV services in 12 target regions of Tanzania;

$12.5 million to partner with the government of Zambia on interventions to end transmission of HIV and provide links to care;

$8 million to support the government of Nigeria in developing a robust method of collecting and evaluating data that could identify gaps in HIV health care.

Each country offers unique challenges, Mubangizi said. Some don't have complete regulatory systems in place to allow for expansive public health projects or fully trained professionals.

Mubangizi said he and others will spend a lot of time on the ground in the countries building relationships with governments, academics and community groups, and seeking approvals for projects, training professionals to conduct their own research and gaining community support.

Dr. Robert C. Gallo, co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology, said the institute has been awarded about $926 million under PEPFAR since 2004. Gallo is widely known for his co-discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS and for development of an HIV blood test.

"It goes without saying that the establishment of our Center for International Health, Education & Biosecurity is long overdue," Gallo said in a statement. "Dr. Mubangizi has led much of our recent PEPFAR program success, and I have no doubt he will continue to build upon the Institute's expertise and extend our reach in other regions of the world to end HIV/AIDS and related illnesses. I am proud of our faculty and staff who are committed to helping developing nations prevent and address infectious diseases, and build infrastructures that better protect humanity from biosecurity threats."

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