Researchers are involved in a study on youth populations that is backed by a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health

Rutgers has received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a four-year study to explore the legal and ethical barriers to conducting HIV research with youth populations in central, east, west and southern Africa.

The goal of researchers from the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research (IFH) is to identify challenges to conducting research and develop strategies for overcoming these barriers to HIV research.

“In this study we will identify current research gaps and learn about the perspectives of researchers and research ethics committee members about how to overcome barriers to conducting studies with underage key populations,” said Ashley Grosso, a core faculty member at the Center for Population Behavioral Health at IFH and the principal investigator of the project, which is backed by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Grosso and her colleagues will review where and how key underage populations have been included in HIV research in Africa. The policies of African nations on parental consent for participation by minors in research will be analyzed and focus groups and surveys of research ethics committee members in Africa, as well as HIV researchers who have conducted studies that included or excluded minors, will be conducted.

The researchers plan to disseminate findings from the study to other researchers, ethics committee members, and organizations representing youth and key populations in Africa.

Worldwide, 1.5 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2021 and 650,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses, according to UNAIDS, a United Nations program. The African region accounts for nearly two thirds of the global total of new HIV infections, according to the World Health Organization. The risk of acquiring HIV is higher among females who sell sex than other women and higher among gay men and men who have sex with men than other men. According to researchers, underage youth from these populations are often excluded from research, hindering the development and testing of interventions that can potentially improve their health.

“Half of the population is under the age of 18 in Africa, the continent with the highest HIV prevalence in the world,” said Grosso, who also is an assistant professor with the Rutgers Department of Urban-Global Public Health. “In many countries, parental consent is required for minors to participate in HIV research studies, but this is often not practical for young key populations at high risk such as adolescents who sell sex and underage males who have sex with males. Excluding minors from research makes it difficult to develop interventions to prevent and treat HIV among underage key populations.

Co-investigators involved in the study include Donald Hoover, Nir Eyal and Mark Budolfson of IFH; Richard Marlink of Rutgers Global Health Institute; and Francis Barchi of Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and IFH. Other collaborators include Mary Kasule of Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence and Charles Hounmenou of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The study’s advisory board consists of members from each of the 48 countries involved in the study.