UF researchers receive $2.7 million to study hazardous alcohol use in women with HIV

University of Florida researchers have received a $2.7 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to evaluate whether a common medication can help women with HIV reduce their alcohol consumption and improve their overall health. 

Dr. Robert Cook

“Alcohol consumption can be harmful in persons with HIV infection if it affects the ability to take medications on schedule, causes people to make poor decisions, or has direct harmful effects on the immune system or other parts of the body,” said the study’s lead investigator Robert Cook, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of epidemiology and medicine at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the College of Medicine. “It is the same with any chronic disease, such as diabetes. Our goals are to identify simple and acceptable treatment options that can help reduce these harmful effects.” 

More than 290,000 women in the United States are living with HIV/AIDS, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Florida ranks second among U.S. states for the number of women with the disease.

“Florida is unique in terms of its racial and ethnic diversity, which will allow us to better understand ongoing health disparities related to HIV,” said Cook, who is also affiliated with the UF division of general internal medicine and the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute.

In an earlier long-term study led by Cook of alcohol consumption in women with HIV, researchers found that 14 percent to 24 percent of the women reported hazardous drinking in the past year. Hazardous alcohol consumption is defined as having four or more drinks daily or seven or more drinks in a week. Previous studies have shown elevated risk for adverse health effects in people with HIV who consume hazardous amounts of alcohol, including higher levels of HIV virus, lower medication adherence, increased risky sexual behavior, and more rapid disease progression.

In the new study researchers will examine whether the prescription medication naltrexone can reduce hazardous drinking in women with HIV and improve their health outcomes. Naltrexone has been found to decrease alcohol use in previous studies of men with severe drinking problems, but has not been tested exclusively in women or in persons with HIV infection, Cook said. Researchers will also assess important clinical measures, such as adherence to HIV medications, white blood cell counts, levels of HIV virus present in the body and risky sexual behavior.

The study is one of three involving Florida universities to examine alcohol consumption in women with HIV. Cook serves as director of this “Florida consortium” that brings together a team of investigators from UF, Florida International University and the University of Miami, as well as Rush University in Chicago. Together, the three studies total $5 million in funding from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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