UTEP Alliance Bridges Gap in Global Health

In the Valley of a Thousand Hills — a scenic, rural landscape of densely folded hills nestled between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa’s province of KwaZulu-Natal — hundreds of children have lost one or both parents to AIDS-related illnesses.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), East and Southern Africa are the regions most affected by HIV in the world, with an estimated 19.6 million people living with the infection in 2017. In the valley’s poverty-stricken communities, HIV-infection rates are between 40 percent and 60 percent.

“For the past 10-15 years, the Valley of a Thousand Hills has been rated as one of the most impacted communities in terms of HIV and AIDS,” Sbusisiwe “Sbu” Myeni, a business consultant and philanthropist, said of her homeland. “Which means that we are raising a huge number of children orphaned from HIV and AIDS.”

Myeni visited The University of Texas at El Paso in October to talk about the IMBELEKO Foundation, an educational organization she co-founded for top academic achieving children orphaned or left vulnerable by AIDS and HIV in the Qadi/Nyuswa community in KwaZulu-Natal, the former Zulu Kingdom.

The 40-hour trip was Myeni’s first visit to UTEP to inaugurate the partnership between IMBELEKO and UTEP’s new Global Alliance for Healthier Populations (GAHP).

Launched in 2018, GAHP is an international alliance dedicated to behavioral and social interventions to address and diminish epidemics, in particular targeting the world’s vulnerable and border communities.

“GAHP exists as a body for organizations to come together to strategically develop healthcare practices to improve the lives of vulnerable communities,” explained Nate Robinson, UTEP assistant vice president for facility security in the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects. He co-founded GAHP with Thenral Mangadu, M.D., Ph.D., UTEP public health sciences associate professor. “Being a homonym with the word ‘gap’ is intentional because our purpose is to address gaps in healthcare and opportunity for quality of life.”

Aside from IMBELEKO, the alliance also includes the Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention Programme (ZAPP), which targets HIV-infected and at-risk populations in the South African country, and the Innovation Program for Community Transformation (InPact) in Uganda in east Africa. InPact’s community transformation programs are designed to improve the health and well-being of young people ages 10 to 30 in the southwestern district of Kanungu, Uganda.

“While we may have variations in our target population, we rally around the goal of improving and sharing best practices, research approaches, data, and resources that lead to behavioral and health interventions that improve lives in vulnerable communities,” Robinson said. “We operate locally with a global mindset.”

In 2008, Myeni left the bank industry after 18 years to dedicate her time to the IMBELEKO Foundation, which she created in response to the high number of children experiencing parental loss from the HIV/AIDS pandemic in her community.

The foundation also was an opportunity for Myeni to honor her late twin sister’s wishes. Myeni and her sister, Seni Myeni-Offiah, a medical doctor, made a pact as children to return to the Valley of a Thousand Hills after college and make a difference.

To date, IMBELEKO has made a difference in the lives of hundreds orphaned and vulnerable children from local schools through holistic education and support programs, including after school programs and scholarships for children to attend boarding school and university. The foundation also provides nutrition, mentoring and family counseling services.

“The focus of our work has been on education; however, the holistic approach to it requires us to also look at health and new infections of HIV and AIDS,” said Myeni, who turned to GAHP to identify strategies to address and reduce HIV risk among children in the Zulu province.

“We’re not experts, so it’s important for us that we sought support where we can get support and I think in terms of work, the basics that we need to do, we’ll get a lot of support from the alliance,” Myeni said.

GAHP’s partners are committed to work together to reduce the impact of epidemics and pandemics in high-HIV/AIDS burden areas in communities in Zimbabwe, Uganda and KwaZulu-Natal. The initiative aims to improve HIV/AIDS-related health and education outcomes in these communities by implementing and advancing transnational evidence-based approaches among high-risk priority populations.

“We address shared and unique needs of all GAHP partners by sharing resources and planning innovative interventions while seeking competitive funding for the same,” Mangadu explained. “We work together as partners to achieve GAHP goals in reducing HIV/AIDS-related health disparities in high HIV/AIDS burden communities.”

According to UNAIDS, Zimbabwe had 1.3 million people living with HIV in 2017.The country’s HIV epidemic has been largely driven by unprotected heterosexual sex.

ZAPP Director Simba Rusakaniko, Ph.D., said the alliance would drive innovative thinking beyond borders that will result in evidence-based community solutions.

“Partnering with GAHP also provides a platform of sharing innovative ideas and an environment that brings room for cross-fertilization of ideas and seeing them to fruition,” Rusakaniko said.

Robinson said the alliance’s goal is to create an effective set of behavioral and health interventions with a core that is global but with customizations that really work in local areas.

In Uganda, where 1.3 million people were living with HIV in 2017, GAHP will serve as an opportunity for InPact to work with different partners from across the world to identify and scale sustainable solutions to global challenges. One of those challenges includes HIV prevention, care and treatment, said Alvin Muhwezi, InPact executive director.

“What GAHP allows us to do is to share experiences from Texas, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa, identify both what works and what doesn’t, and generate evidence-based strategies applicable in cross-cultural settings,” Muhwezi said.

In the near future, Robinson and Mangadu hope to expand the alliance to include partners from India and Mexico.

“Our focus is people, wherever they may be,” Robinson said.

Author:  Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications