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Partnership to Tackle Research and Advocacy on Global Health Issues

To pursue critically needed scientific knowledge on global health issues, the University of Miami and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) recently announced the launch of the AHF Global Public Health Institute at the University of Miami.

From left, Cindy L. Munro, Ph.D., RN, Otto Yang, M.D., Michael Weinstein, Julio Frenk, Jorge Saavedra, M.D., M.P.H., M.H.P.M., José Szapocznik, Ph.D., Hansel Tookes, M.D., M.P.H., Adriane Gelpi, Ph.D., M.P.H., Sunil Rao, Ph.D., Andrea Calo and Mitzi Tanaka.

The partnership will allow researchers to generate objective evidence that can  lead to improvements in public health policy at the global, regional, national and local levels — not only for HIV/AIDS, but also for other emerging public health threats.

The partnership was announced by UM President Julio Frenk and Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Both institutions took the first steps toward establishing a policy research initiative in 2016, when they signed a memorandum of understanding.

“The University of Miami is honored to partner with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to further global public health research,” said Frenk. “This is a significant step in our ongoing efforts to expand UM’s role as a hemispheric university with the potential to help improve the health and well-being of people throughout the Americas and the rest of the world.”

AHF is the world’s largest AIDS organization and currently provides medical care and/or services to more than 800,000 people in 37 countries. Weinstein said the Foundation’s 30-year-plus domestic, hemispheric, and global experience in the fight against HIV/AIDS now needs to be used to benefit other public health concerns.

One of the Foundation’s motivating factors: the death of one of their most prominent and respected physicians in Sierra Leone, who succumbed to Ebola virus in 2014 after treating many other patients.

“AHF, as a global health care organization, had a duty and moral responsibility to devote some of our resources to analyze other diseases beyond HIV,” Weinstein said. “We are now committed to this new partnership with the University of Miami to generate rigorous research that will inform improvements in global public health policies.”

Weinstein also announced at the meeting that the AHF Global Public Health Institute will be led by Executive Director Jorge Saavedra, M.D., M.P.H., M.H.P.M.

Prior to joining AHF as chief of global affairs in 2009, he was the first director of the largest HIV clinic in Latin America (Clinica Condesa), located in Mexico City, and served as director general of the National Center for AIDS Prevention and Control in Mexico from 2003 to 2009.

José Szapocznik, Ph.D., professor and chair emeritus of the Department of Public Health Sciences at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, will direct the university’s component of the partnership.

“Because Miami is an epicenter of the HIV epidemic in the U.S. and ground zero for local and travel-related Zika transmissions, UM’s public health researchers and physician-scientists are uniquely positioned to investigate HIV- and Zika-related health policy issues,” Szapocznik said. “Our role as public health scientists is to generate knowledge that can swiftly translate into public health solutions.”

Adriane Gelpi, Ph.D., M.P.H., said the Institute already has essential projects underway that will have an impact in South Florida, and beyond.

“Specifically, we are looking at a study of Zika and the policies and practices that can be used to inform recommendation for preparedness and response in the Americas,” said Gelpi, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences.

In addition, researchers are working on an initiative on harm reduction among injection drug users in Miami-Dade County, a study of the microbiome on HIV-negative homosexual men, and a study of the U.S. Minority AIDS Initiative intended to yield recommendations for improved strategies for reaching minority populations.

According to Szapocznik, additional studies will result from the collaborative effort.

“There are great opportunities to develop a program of research, but the full vision and focus for the Institute has yet to be developed, and we will be doing that shortly,” he said. “We believe that the studies funded by the Foundation will help to inform AHF’s global advocacy, as will investigator-initiated studies that represent areas of interest that are new to AHF.”

Other participants at the announcement included Cindy L. Munro, Ph.D., RN, dean and professor at the UM School of Nursing and Health Studies; Otto Yang, M.D., a researcher at the UCLA AIDS Institute; Hansel Tookes, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine and director of the IDEA Exchange at the Miller School; Sunil Rao, Ph.D., interim chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences; Andrea Calo, executive director for major gifts at the Miller School; and Mitzi Tanaka, director of research support in the Department of Public Health Sciences.

Tags: AHF Global Public Health Institute, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Julio Frenk, Michael Weinstein