With more newly diagnosed HIV infections and AIDS cases than any other region in the nation, South Florida is at the epicenter of a public health crisis, researchers and physicians with the University of Miami Health System said Tuesday at the opening of the new UM Infectious Disease Research Unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
The goal of researchers and physicians at the new unit, which is located next door to Jackson Memorial’s HIV clinic: to recruit patients diagnosed with HIV into clinical research funded by the state to find a vaccine and cure for HIV/AIDS.
Mario Stevenson, chief of the infectious diseases division at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, said the proximity of the research unit to Jackson Memorial’s HIV clinic, which cares for about 2,600 patients, would have “a dramatic impact” on their efforts.
“For research into a vaccine and cure, you need access” to people living with HIV, he said. “This unit is geographically positioned to allow us to seamlessly recruit infected individuals into clinical research.”
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Florida Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, championed a state budget appropriation of $1 million in 2015 and 2016 that will fund UM-led research into HIV/AIDs.
Florida is first in the nation in the number of newly diagnosed HIV infections and AIDS cases, and second in the nation in the number of diagnosed pediatric AIDS cases.
Garcia noted that South Florida leads the nation in new AIDS cases annually, and that the new research unit will help lift the stigma of HIV infection and encourage individuals to get tested for the virus that leads to AIDS.
“Thirty years ago ... it was a death sentence,” Garcia said of HIV infection. “Today, it’s a chronic disease if treated early.”
Miami-Dade and Broward rank first and second, respectively, in the state for HIV infections and AIDS cases, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The agency’s monthly HIV surveillance report notes that Miami-Dade has documented 1,331 new cases of HIV infection for the 10 months ending Oct. 31, an 11 percent increase over the prior year.
In Broward, the state health agency has reported 941 new cases of HIV infection for the 10 months ending Oct. 31, a 17 percent increase over the prior year.
Nearly 27,000 residents of Miami-Dade and 20,000 people in Broward are presumed to be living with HIV infection or AIDs as of Oct. 31, the state agency reported.
Thirty years ago it was a death sentence. Today, it’s a chronic disease if treated early.
Florida Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican
Rafael Campo, a UHealth physician and infectious disease specialist who will manage the new research unit, said patients who enroll in clinical trials will receive specialized care and more attention.
It’s unclear how many patients will be recruited for clinical trials because research proposals are still being solicited. But Campo noted that patients living with HIV who enroll in clinical trials tend to have better health outcomes than those who do not.
“We treat our research subjects with silk gloves,” he said, noting that physicians spend more time learning about patients in clinical research.
“This leads to incredible patient satisfaction … and that satisfaction leads to better patient outcomes,” he said. “People don’t necessarily have to die of HIV infection anymore.”
The type of patients most likely to benefit from clinical research, he said, are those with the lowest levels of the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV in their system and who have been taking antiretroviral therapy the longest.
But those patients are also the hardest to reach, said Stevenson, who attributes South Florida’s high number of new HIV infections and AIDS cases to the region’s demographics.
113,677 Floridians presumed living with HIV or AIDS as of Oct. 31
“It’s our socioeconomic mix. It’s our ethnic mix. We have a very challenging population,” he said, noting the prevalence of substance abuse, homelessness and language barriers that make it difficult to reach some persons living with HIV.
Allan Rodriguez, a UHealth physician and specialist in HIV/AIDS, said behavioral research is an important element of the unit’s work in order to get patients to follow the medical regimens that will help lower their viral loads to undetectable levels.
The new research unit is expected to contribute to global efforts to find a vaccine or cure for the deadly virus and disease, said Ronald Desrosiers, a UHealth virologist and researcher working on a vaccine for HIV.
“Historically, vaccines have been our most potent weapon against viral disease,” Desrosiers said, noting that deadly diseases like polio and small pox have been eradicated through vaccines.
Desrosiers said HIV possesses unique properties that make it more difficult to combat than other viruses. But he called the development of an effective, affordable and safe vaccine against HIV “the greatest public health challenge of our time.”