UCLA Students Dance for HIV Research and Long Lives

A UCLA student dances all night to help eliminating pediatric AIDS in Rwanda and around the world.

Sydney Van Horn/EGPAF

In April 2014, a group of students at the University of California, Los Angeles, danced nonstop for 26 hours to raise funds for pediatric HIV/AIDS organizations, including the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF).

By the time the last song ended, the students had raised $311,909 for EGPAF, of which $40,000 was set aside to study HIV drug resistance among a group of HIV-positive mothers and their babies in Kigali, Rwanda. The women in this small but important study were already enrolled as participants in the Kabeho Study, an EGPAF project funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

In the Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda, “Kabeho” is used to wish someone a long life.

The Rwandan government is currently implementing a program that provides lifelong antiretroviral treatment (ART) to all HIV-positive pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. This strategy should significantly increase the survival rate of these mothers, while also reducing the risk of infection in their children. The Kabeho Study’s primary objective is to study mother-to-child transmission of HIV at health centers around Kigali and to help the government of Rwanda improve its support to HIV-positive pregnant mothers and their infants.

Some Mothers and Infants Are Resistant to Standard Treatment

However, one major question not addressed in the larger Kabeho Study is identifying and studying those mothers or their children who are resistant to the treatment.

“This is a huge problem,” says Gilles Ndayisaba, M.D., who runs the EGPAF-Rwanda program. “This means that the drugs we are using are not working, and we will have to move to a different regimen of drugs to treat these patients.”

It is critical that doctors learn as soon as possible if patients have virus that are resistant to a certain type of treatment in order to quickly transfer them to second-line or third-line treatment. This is important because medication interrupts the HIV life cycle and helps to decrease the level of HIV (the viral load) in their systems. If the medication is ineffective, the HIV life cycle will continue unabated and the patient will become sicker. 

“In order to make sure the women and their babies are on the right treatment, we need resistance testing, so that we can adapt their regimen,” says Ndayisaba. 

Resistance Testing Can Mean the Difference Between Life and Death

Because resistance tests are expensive to run, they are not included in routine testing of HIV-positive patients in most countries. Rather, if a patient does not responding to treatment, healthcare workers emphasize adherence, taking medicines exactly as prescribed. If the patient still doesn’t respond, she is automatically transferred to second-line treatment, and if she still doesn’t respond, to third-line treatment. This can waste time—time the patient may not have to spare.

Resistance testing can save valuable time and allow doctors to immediately tailor treatment to the patient if she is found to have a resistant strain of the virus.

“Sometimes the time saved by doing resistance testing earlier can be the difference between life and death—because it allows health center staff to better target the treatment of the patient much earlier,” says Ndayisaba.

UCLA Dance Marathon Help Researchers Study Resistance to Treatment

HIV Research in women and children remains underfunded, yet, it is a vital element in the strategy to contain the epidemic and eliminate pediatric HIV.

One of the challenges of HIV is that the virus can mutate rapidly. Testing for resistance helps health workers discover the mutation and respond accordingly. However, there has not been much research in this area in African settings where all pregnant and postpartum women are receiving ART.

With the funds from the Dance Marathon at UCLA, the Kabeho Study will be able to work with the government of Rwanda’s National Reference Lab to run resistance tests on study participants with high viral load. This will allow study staff to better understand what is causing resistance. It will also allow for improved treatment, in tandem with counseling for adherence, to improve the health of the mother and limit the risk that the mothers will pass the virus onto their babies.

The students who raise funds so diligently for EGPAF-Rwanda play a critical role in better understanding the resistance patterns of the HIV virus, potentially saving lives of HIV-positive mothers and their babies.

UCLA students will dance again in April 2015 for pediatric HIV/AIDS. We hope that their knowledge about our research will give them an extra bounce on the dance floor. Even though these UCLA students may never come to Rwanda, they nonetheless embody the spirit of Kabeho.

All the way from California, they are wishing people in Rwanda a long and healthy life.

Watch a short video of UCLA students dancing to end pediatric AIDS.

To contribute to UCLA's fundraising goal, donate here

Sushant Mukherjee is the country director of EGPAF-Rwanda.

The Kabeho Study is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.