University of South Florida HIV Study Focuses on Disclosure

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HIV Virus

The University of South Florida is involved in a groundbreaking study. One that promises to pioneer a program that has never before been developed—an intervention to help with the disclosure of an HIV-positive diagnosis.

“This is the very first and only intervention ever developed to help with disclosure to casual sexual partners,” said Dr. Julienne Serovich, USF’s new Dean of the College of Behavioral Sciences. “I have been doing a series of studies over the years, first trying to understand who people disclose to and what are the reasons they disclose, do they regret disclosing, things of that nature."

Serovich has developed and diligently worked on her research for many years, and through an earlier study was successful in creating an intervention program aimed at helping HIV-positive men through the process of disclosing their diagnosis, specifically to sexual partners.

“We took that data and we developed an intervention that looked at disclosing to sexual partners," she said. "It’s a five-session intervention that we pilot-tested in Columbus (Ohio) and we found that it was a success. We took those results and wrote for another grant and received it to do a larger trial.”

The study began in Columbus, but will conclude here in Tampa Bay.

“I was very appreciative to the Columbus community for supporting and being a part of the study there, and I’m hoping the Tampa Bay community can now be a part of it too,” she said. “We’re looking for another 140 men, as we want to run approximately 300 men through the study.”

After 17 years as a department chair at Ohio State University, Serovich came to Florida to be a part of USF in July 2012. With her, she brought two decades of experience in the area of HIV disclosure research.

“I’ve been studying HIV disclosure now for more than 20 years, that’s what my entire career has been,” Serovich said. “I’ve been very interested in how people make the decision to disclose that they are HIV-positive to everyone from sex partners to their mother. Family, friends, coworkers—the whole gambit of people.”

The intervention program Serovich is developing is unprecedented, and has the potential to help those affected by HIV and aid them through the process of disclosure.

“People will disclose after they’ve weighed the pros and cons, the rewards and consequences,” said Serovich. “What our intervention is about is helping people think through their motivations for disclosing, the rewards they anticipate, and the costs, and how can we help them maybe reduce those costs.”

Serovich added that decisions to be open about an HIV diagnosis are affected by who will be receiving the news.  

“Your mother is going to react differently to it than someone you’re about to be intimate with,” Serovich explained. "You could be positioning yourself to disclose to a sex partner and decide last minute, ‘No, this person is kind of a jerk,’ and walk away without having disclosed. You can disclose and the person ends up being a jerk, and you can walk away and think ‘Well thank goodness I don’t have to deal with him anymore.' But your mother, your sister, your brother—these are people that you’re always going to have to deal with, and so there are very different consequences between those two groups.”

She also says that her studies are finding that once someone is prepared and feels comfortable with divulging a diagnosis, they are not feeling any regret about the decision.

“In our studies of regret, we’ve found that men experience very little regret after disclosing their HIV status to both family and sex partners," she said. " "Once they get it out in the open, they feel better about it and can move on.”

However, Serovich says there are circumstances which can exacerbate the situation.

“The only time there seems to be regret, especially with family members, is if a second party intervenes and does the disclosing for them,” she said. “For example if a man discloses to his sister or a friend and they say ‘Okay, well I’m telling everybody about this,’ that is a circumstance in which a man may feel regret.”

Serovich’s extensive research on this topic of HIV disclosure has the potential to provide a pioneering program that helps guide those dealing with an HIV diagnosis through the steps of disclosure, and prepare them to relate the information to others in their lives. But the struggle faced by those dealing with an HIV-positive diagnosis, and the added stress of opening up to family, friends, and partners about it, was something that first struck Serovich more than 20 years ago.

“As a couples and family therapist, I’ve always been interested in how individuals communicate, and so I was doing my doctoral work at the University of Georgia—and this was in the late ‘80s when HIV was really hitting the mainstream—I saw people were having to make these very difficult decisions about telling their families and friends and partners about their HIV diagnosis because people were fearful, there was such a heavy stigma,” she said. “It was hurting people a great deal.”

Serovich firmly believes that this study and the intervention program can have a positive impact.

“If we continue to see success with this intervention I would love to get this information directly into the hands of those working with people who are HIV-positive, and to AIDS service organizations to be implemented,” she said. "We’ve developed this intervention program in such a way that any case worker could implement this in their daily workings with people who are HIV-positive.”

While the study still has some time before it concludes—approximately two years, according to Serovich—the results so far have been very promising.

“Our facilitators are thrilled with the intervention and they are very pleased with how the study is going,” she said. "We’re doing a lot of educating, we’re pointing things out, we’re allowing people to think about things and discover things that they hadn’t before about their relationships. I’m very optimistic and I’m very excited. I really do believe that disclosure can lead to the reduction of HIV transmission.”

And while Serovich is aware that her new position as a dean brings with it a slew of new responsibilities, her research is far from over.

“I have a lot more that I want to do here in the future,” she said. “Maybe there are different ways we can deliver this intervention program, perhaps online. My career and my research are certainly not over just because I’ve taken an administrative position.”

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