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Efficiency the key for global HIV/AIDS programs

Richard Wamai, an assistant professor of public health in the Department of African American Studies and an expert in HIV/AIDS research and policy, said advancements in prevention and treatment of the disease have yielded two positive trends: HIV/AIDS patients are living longer, and the number of new cases is steadily declining.

But Wamai also struck a note of caution, adding that the worldwide economic crisis has threatened funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. As a result, he said, governments and agencies must optimize the resources at their disposal.

To this end, Wamai is part of a global consortium of researchers that is leading a study to identify the most efficient way of allocating funds for HIV/AIDS interventions among affected populations. The project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is focused in five countries: Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, South Africa, and Nigeria—all of which are located in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 22.5 million people live with HIV/AIDS, comprising 68 percent of the world’s total.

“There is a critical need for countries to use the funding available in a more efficient way,” said Wamai, noting that the number of people who become infected outstrip those who receive treatment. “Can they provide HIV/AIDS services at an increasingly lower cost without compromising quality? That’s a question we’re committed to answering.”

In recognition for his work in this field, Wamai was recently honored with the 2012 World AIDS Day Unsung Hero Award by Blood:Water Mission. The Nashville, Tenn.-based nonprofit empowers communities to work together against the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa.

Wamai is also co-founder of Northeastern’s Global Health Initiative along with Michael Pollastri, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology.

Richard Wamai (standing) leads a training session for the research project in Kenya in December.

In December, Wamai spent two weeks in Kenya, overseeing the research team’s efforts to gather hordes of data from comprehensive surveys of health facilities and individuals infected with HIV/AIDS. The study is being conducted at 135 sites throughout the country.

The project—Optimizing the Response of HIV/AIDS Prevention in Africa (ORPHEA)—is focused on determining the actual costs of providing a unit of service for HIV/AIDS interventions, and how that process can become even more cost effective.

In particular, the project will measure the technical efficiency of four HIV/AIDS prevention interventions: mother-to-child transmission, male circumcision, HIV testing and counseling, and male and female sex workers’ access to treatment and services.

Wamai noted that he expects all the data to be collected in the focus countries by the summer of 2013. The consortium of researchers will ultimately provide recommendations on improving efficiency in the production and delivery of HIV prevention services. Their recommendations can be used to inform policymakers and foster continued research.

“This is the largest HIV/AIDS cost-effectiveness study done to date,” Wamai said.

View selected pub­li­ca­tions of Richard Wamai in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.