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Walsh receives fellowships for HIV PrEP research

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Supported by two fellowships, second-year medical student Tim Walsh spent his summer on the South Side of Chicago, working to increase awareness and use of the HIV-prevention pill PrEP.

The Alpha Omega Alpha Kukein Fellowship provided Walsh with $6,000. And the Infectious Disease Society of America Medical Scholars Program Fellowship added $2,000 toward the research, which Walsh conducted from June to mid-August within a larger study that will continue through early 2018.

His motivation was seven years in the making.

“In the summer of 2009, I was in Bolivia working at a hospital in the infectious disease unit,” said the Orlando native. “There was a lot of stigma around why people were there, and people did not want to go into the unit, fearful of HIV.”

Walsh returned to the States ready to turn fear into understanding.

“When I came back my junior year to the University of Chicago, there was a talk by my mentor, Dr. John Schneider, about HIV issues on the South Side of Chicago in men who have sex with other men,” said Walsh. “I jumped onto his original pilot study.”

For Walsh, it was also personal: “I’m a gay male, so infectious disease, especially HIV, and the stigma around it really resonate with me.”

PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is taken once a day to prevent HIV. To receive the drug, a person has to be considered high-risk for contracting HIV: for example, if you’re a man having unprotected sex with other men, or if you’ve had another bacterial STD, like gonorrhea or chlamydia.

“PrEP is really exciting,” Walsh said, “because it’s not only preventing HIV, but it gets men in to see a primary care provider every three months for testing. For young men, that’s not common. They become more reflective about their sexual behaviors.”

Walsh conducted his research with the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, which is directed by his mentor. It’s near the most at-risk population: young black men who have sex with men.

“In that group in Chicago, one in every three black men who have sex with men is infected with HIV,” said Walsh, who wrote his published undergraduate thesis on the disparity in access to HIV centers between North and South Side Chicago. “It’s really a devastating epidemic in Chicago, so this medication brings new opportunity.”

The center’s research involves a four-hour training session where a team teaches leaders in the community about HIV and PrEP. Then they discuss how participants can inform others and recruit them for training. As a result, those who need PrEP know to ask their doctor about it, or call the center’s hotline for a physician referral and accompaniment to their first three clinic visits.

Using his fellowship awards, Walsh examined participants’ goal-setting priorities: “Goals became an initial measure of investment in the project to help identify who needs more support.”

For his last two years of medical school, Walsh hopes to match in Orlando – where his family lives and where the regional campus dean, Michael Muszynski, specializes in infectious diseases.

The day of the shootings at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Walsh was in Chicago buying candles for an activity to demonstrate the effectiveness of spreading the word about PrEP. Instead, the participants lit their candles to honor the victims of the shooting and held a memorial (seen right).

“Even though we divide ourselves in a lot of different ways — by community, by sexual orientation, by race – people could find common ground in that memorial,” said Walsh. “And that was even more special for someone like me, considering I grew up in Orlando.”

Read more about Walsh’s commitment to goal-setting in his essay, ‘A Question of Respect' (page 3).