EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A local researcher has received a $3 million grant to slow the spread of HIV among drug users in the El Paso-Juarez border region.

The grant from the National Institute of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse will fund a behavioral intervention program targeting intravenous drug users, according to the University of Texas at El Paso.

UTEP Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences Julia Lechuga is leading the project. She received an NIH grant in 2016 to establish Project Encuentro in collaboration with Juarez-based Programa Companeros, which works with HIV-positive populations and leads risk-prevention efforts.

The university says this will be the next phase of Project Encuentro.

“Despite advances in HIV treatment, people are still at risk for getting and transmitting the virus, particularly people who inject drugs,” Lechuga said. “Our aim is to reduce the spread of HIV in our binational community by providing people who use drugs access to much-needed resources to help them improve their health and their quality of life.”

Researchers will use a multiphase strategy to improve adherence to antiretroviral therapy among 384 HIV-positive people who use drugs in Juárez.

If taken as prescribed, antiretroviral therapy can lower the viral load in the blood to undetectable levels.

Over the next five years, Lechuga will test four intervention models to determine which combinations are most effective at helping people who inject drugs and who are HIV positive to suppress their viral load, UTEP reported.

The project will use health navigators to help participants get HIV treatment services, treatment for depression, improved access to methadone treatment, and sessions and skills for medication adherence.