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Global research on HIV prevention to be transformed thanks to £5 million award

Press release issued: 5 September 2023

Researchers from seven international institutions hope to transform traditional strategies used to tackle global HIV prevention for key populations particularly affected by the virus, thanks to a new £5 million Wellcome Discovery award to Professor Peter Vickerman at the University of Bristol.

Despite efforts to eliminate HIV, levels remain high among key populations, with UNAIDS estimating that globally men who have sex with men (MSM), people who inject drugs (PWID) and female sex workers (FSW) have three to 11 times higher burden of HIV infection and contribute to the majority of new HIV infections. The £5 million award will fund an eight-year study to improve current prevention strategies for these key populations.

While existing HIV prevention interventions work for key populations, "structural factors", such as unemployment, homelessness, stigma, violence and criminalisation, may severely limit their impact. These factors are pervasive in key populations globally and can increase the vulnerability of key populations to HIV through reducing access to health services, retention to HIV treatment, and increasing HIV risk behaviours.

Although largely overlooked in the past, initiatives to reduce structural factors and their effects are a focus of recent global HIV elimination strategies, but there is limited evidence to show why it is essential to bring these to the forefront of HIV prevention efforts and how this could be achieved.

Peter Vickerman, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling from the Bristol Medical School’s Population Health Sciences and NIHR Health Protection Research Unit (NIHR HPRU) and project lead said:  "We are incredibly excited and grateful to Wellcome for giving us this opportunity to improve HIV programming among key populations, which by focussing on structural factors could also improve the broader quality of life of these vulnerable populations.

"To date, HIV prevention initiatives have generally not focussed on structural interventions, in part because the effects of structural factors on HIV are complex, poorly understood and challenging to quantify. Our proof-of-concept modelling suggests their role could be considerable."

The project will include systematic reviews, epidemiological analyses, mathematical modelling and cost-effectiveness analyses, to quantify and cost the contribution of structural factors to driving the HIV epidemic, and the impact of interventions that address them. The project aims to enable evidence-based planning in HIV programming for key populations including structural interventions.

Professor Marie-Claude Boily, a senior member of the study team from Imperial College London, added: "Mitigating the effects of structural factors is likely to be key if we are to achieve global targets of eliminating HIV by 2030. Our project will deliver the tools and evidence-base needed to implement HIV elimination initiatives that systematically track, reduce, and mitigate exposure to structural factors among key populations."

The project team will also work closely with global and in-country stakeholders, community advisory groups, and affected communities in each setting where research is undertaken.

Professor Lucy Platt, an epidemiologist and senior member of the project team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, continued: "Key populations often face marginalisation, stigma and socio-economic disadvantage and consequently carry one of the highest burdens of HIV/AIDS globally. It is critical that people most affected by these issues have a voice in research. We will work closely with communities in all aspects of the project, from prioritising research questions to interpretation of findings and write-up to translating findings into practice and policy change."

The project brings together an international team of epidemiologists, mathematical modellers, health economists, field scientists and community representatives. The core team includes Professor Marie-Claude Boily (Imperial College London), Dr Mathieu Maheu-Giroux (McGill University), Dr Adelina Artenie (University of Bristol), Dr Jack Stone (University of Bristol), Professors Lucy Platt and Fern Terris-Prestholt (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, LSHTM), Ms Tetiana Saliuk (Alliance for Public Health, Ukraine), Mr Serge Niangoran (Programme PAC-CI, Côte d'Ivoire) and Mr Aditya Singh (Johns Hopkins India). In addition, over 30 collaborators worldwide have joined the project to offer data, methodological or field expertise and to act as partners from international public health agencies. The team will be further expanded to include four postdoctoral researchers from LSHTM, Imperial College and McGill and three PhD students based in India, Ukraine and Cote D'Ivoire.

The project, 'Transforming the response to the HIV epidemics amongst key populations: Addressing structural factors for achieving HIV elimination', began in July 2023.

 For further information on the project, please contact Professor Peter Vickerman, email

Further information

About Wellcome  
Wellcome supports science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. We support discovery research into life, health and wellbeing, and we’re taking on three worldwide health challenges: mental health, infectious disease and climate and health. 

About Wellcome Discovery Awards
This scheme provides funding for established researchers and teams from any discipline who want to pursue bold and creative research ideas to deliver significant shifts in understanding that could improve human life, health and wellbeing.

About the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit [HPRU] in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at the University of Bristol
The NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol is one of 14 HPRUs across England, part of a £58.7 million investment by the NIHR to protect the health of the nation.

The NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation is a partnership between the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and University of Bristol, in collaboration with MRC Biostatistics Research Unit at the University of Cambridge and University of the West of England.

Each NIHR HPRU undertakes high quality research that is used by UKHSA to keep the public safe from current and emerging public health threats.

About the NIHR
The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy.

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

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