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Improving HIV prevention, treatment

Breakthrough Star Sayward Harrison studies how policies, practices can affect disease outcomes

Sayward Harrison stands on a porch with columns in the background.

In her quest to improve HIV prevention and treatment, Sayward Harrison strives to answer two questions: What role do psychosocial factors such as stigma or mistrust play in the virus’ spread and how can evidence-based changes to practice and policy make a positive difference?

Motivation and mission. Growing up in the rural South, Harrison saw firsthand the barriers that often prevent people with chronic health conditions from receiving much needed care. Personal experiences — including within her own family — inspired her efforts to improve health and well-being within marginalized communities.

Research scope. After studying how individual factors like substance use and mental health can affect HIV prevention and treatment outcomes, she has expanded her focus to address the bigger picture: the systems, policies and practices that drive HIV disparities.

Global impact. As an undergraduate, Harrison spent time working with local communities on HIV prevention efforts in Malawi. Her postdoctoral research focused on children affected by parental HIV in China, which paved the way for additional research studies there, including a new project to reduce HIV stigma among healthcare providers in Chinese HIV clinics.

Awards and accolades. Her work to improve children’s well-being has garnered national and international recognition, including a career development grant from the National Institutes of Health and an award for Excellence in HIV Research Related to Children from the International AIDS Society.

Why it matters. Between 35,000 and 40,000 people in the U.S. acquire HIV each year. Columbia, South Carolina, consistently ranks among the top 10 U.S. cities for the rate of AIDS cases. Also, one-third of South Carolinians living with HIV aren’t accessing life-saving antiretroviral therapy to treat the infection.

“I am grateful that my research can play a small role in helping us do a better job addressing the psychological and social aspects of HIV, and I hope that my scholarship will contribute to meaningful improvements in our current HIV prevention and care systems — as well as to greater acceptance and support for individuals with stigmatized health conditions or personal identities.”


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The University of South Carolina’s 2023 Breakthrough Stars represent the very best among the ranks of the university’s assistant and associate professors. Their success will help propel the university for years to come.

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