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Sociology | Department News

Social Sciences

Community Disruption and HIV in DC

By Josh Halpren

Kim Blankenship

Director of the Center on Health, Risk, and Society Kim Blankenship

The College’s Center on Health, Risk, and Society recently hosted American University’s first-ever conference on community disruption and HIV risk in DC.

From its inception, AU’s Center on Health, Risk, and Society (CHRS) has worked to support research to understand the societal factors that lead to and stem from health problems in a range of communities. Complemented by AU’s new partnership with the National Institutes of Health-funded DC Developmental Center for AIDS Research (DC D-CFAR), a multi-institution center dedicated to understanding and focusing research on DC’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, the CHRS has, as one of its priorities, expanding HIV/AIDS research conducted in and related to Washington, DC.

The September 13-14 event was cosponsored by AU’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies as well as the DC D-CFAR and funded by the NIH and AU’s College of Arts and Sciences. It focused on three key processes of “community disruption” especially important in the D.C. area: the incarceration and re-entry cycle, neighborhood change and gentrification, and deportation. According to Kim Blankenship, the director of CHRS and chair of the Department of Sociology, each of these factors likely plays key roles in the spread of the virus.

“When large numbers of a community’s members are circulating in and out of the criminal justice system it has various consequences for the communities, as well as the individuals, their families, and their partners,” says Blankenship. “It may mean, for example, that the communities are spending precious resources dealing with the effects of having many members missing because they are in jail. They may have fewer resources available for education, housing, health services, etc.”

Blankenship also notes the possible impact of deportation on the spread of HIV. “When communities fear that they or other members of their families and communities may be brought in by the police, whether they are documented or not, or fear that they may be forced to report members of their community who may be undocumented,” says Blankenship, “it is likely to keep them from or cause them to fear engaging with various types of community and public services, including health services.” This may result in fewer community members getting tested for or completing treatment for HIV or other sexually transmitted infections, increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

The conference featured scholars and policymakers both from within DC and across the country. Coming from places as far as University of California-San Diego and as close as the DC Department of Health, the conference brought together a range of perspectives to encourage inter-institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration. Also present were representatives from funding agencies, including NIH.

Blankenship’s purpose was to bring together social scientists who may have studied these social processes of disruption, but not in the context of HIV/AIDS, with HIV/AIDS researchers who may or may not have studied the virus as it relates to disruption. Her hope is that the discussions started at the conference will stimulate new and innovative research aimed at understanding the impact of community disruption on HIV/AIDS in DC. She promises that CHRS has various plans for continuing the work started, including producing a full conference report.

Blankenship encourages students and faculty members interested in issues relating to HIV/AIDS and community factors influencing its spread, as well as in understanding the social dimensions of health in general, to contact the CHRS and/or the D-CFAR, to get involved with this research. AU faculty members with an interest in HIV/AIDS research can become an affiliated member of the D-CFAR, giving them access to a range of resources offered by the center, including sampling, research design, and consultation. The CHRS also hosts weekly seminars on topics relating to the social aspects of health and provides a variety of services for facilitating related research.

“It is our hope that researchers not currently engaging in HIV/AIDS and other health-related research consider doing so after this conference,” says Blankenship. “We hope to demonstrate the importance of social science perspectives and research to understanding and addressing HIV. This really is a niche that AU is poised to fill.”

For more information on the conference and other Center for Health, Risk and Society events, visit CHRS’s web site.