'SMART Cougars' Project Addresses Alarming Rise in Minority Youth HIV Diagnoses

Three-Year Graduate College of Social Work Project Partners with Community Organizations for Rapid-HIV Testing

A new effort from the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work partners with Houston Area Community Services (HACS) and Change Happens! to stem the increasing number of minority youth diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

SMART Cougars is a three-year project to prevent and reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS among minority youth by making free, rapid-HIV testing and counseling available. Testing at the UH Campus Recreation and Wellness Center and several locations in nearby communities began the first week of October. All testing and counseling is anonymous, confidential and conducted by trained HIV/AIDS prevention specialists.

SMART Cougars

The project is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Hispanics and African Americans account for 57 percent of the Houston metropolitan area population, but represent 82 percent of new HIV diagnoses and 73 percent of people living with HIV,” said Luis Torres, associate professor with the college’s Center for Drug and Social Policy Research. “In these communities, HIV testing is frequently delayed due to challenges with identification, engagement and retention in care, making our project critical for public health locally and nationally.”

Torres says Hispanic and African American youth have among the lowest rates of HIV testing. He adds HIV is spreading through minority populations through unprotected sexual encounters, as opposed to sharing of needles or other high-risk behavior involving the use and abuse of drugs.

Rapid-HIV testing involves a minimal amount of blood and provides results usually within 15 minutes. Participants also will receive screenings for substance use and mental health issues, and post-HIV test counseling. The client will leave knowing his/her status, next steps, as well as risks and how to decrease them. If needed, they will be connected to treatment.

Results from this project will inform public policy and support ongoing public health research and dialogue on the importance of early interventions in minority youth populations.

For more information on the UH Graduate College of Social Work, visit: http://www.uh.edu/socialwork/about/ 

For more information on the Houston Area Community Services, visit: http://hacstxs.org/

For more information on Change Happens!, visit: http://www.changehappenstx.org/