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The University of Southampton

Southampton researcher receives one of two new NIHR Global Health Research Professorships

Published: 13 August 2018
Nuala McGrath
Nuala McGrath has been awarded a NIHR Global Health Research Professorship

A University of Southampton researcher has been awarded one of only two Global Health Research Professorships by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) for her work improving adult health in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The £2 million award will allow Nuala McGrath, Professor of Epidemiology and Sexual Health, and her team, to carry out the five-year project designing and evaluating couples-focused interventions for people affected with HIV, STIs and diabetes in SSA, in partnership with the University of Cape Town and the South African Human Sciences Research Council. It will enable the team to support training and capacity development in the partner institutions, as well as provide opportunities for Southampton students to gain research experience in South Africa.

This is the first time the NIHR has appointed specialist global health professorships that could have a potentially significant impact on the health and lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people in lower and middle-income countries. The Research Professorship is the NIHR’s highest level of personal award and aims to facilitate strong research leadership and to develop the capacity for research in areas critical to accelerating the transfer of research ideas to deliver better health.

Nuala is an international expert on HIV epidemiology, with particular expertise in HIV prevention and treatment intervention research including randomised controlled trials (RCTs), the measurement and analysis of sexual behaviour data, couples’ relationships in the context of HIV, statistical analysis of longitudinal population-based health and demographic data. She has spent many years living, working and directing health research institutions in Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Malawi, gaining wide experience of designing, implementing and leading multidisciplinary health studies in general community settings. She was also involved in the first US trials to identify appropriate treatment for HIV-infected children. 

Nuala, who has a joint appointment in the Faculties of Medicine and Social Sciences at the University of Southampton, said: “I am delighted to have received this NIHR Global Health Research Professorship. Couples-focused health research is an expanding and innovative research area. Partners have a significant influence on each other’s health and tend to be more similar in health status and health behaviours, therefore couples may be a very good target for interventions to improve health.”

South Africa has experienced one of the most severe generalised HIV epidemics in the world and by 2015 diabetes was the second largest cause of death. More than two-thirds of all HIV-infected adults worldwide live in SSA, that also has the highest rates of mortality due to diabetes and undiagnosed cases of diabetes. The colliding epidemics of adult communicable and non-communicable diseases in SSA means increasing numbers of men and women are living with more than one diagnosis and managing multi-morbidities and increasingly complex health needs. Identifying behavioural change strategies that can be incorporated into a range of interventions targeting different diseases has the potential to significantly benefit public health.

The programme of work will include:

- adapting an existing intervention to substantially enhance promotion of couples HIV testing and counselling among couples who have never tested together for HIV or mutually disclosed their status
- developing a couples-focused intervention for couples where one partner has diabetes
- establishing a research agenda in couples-focused health research in SSA

Nuala added: “Evidence suggests that couple-focused interventions may be more effective than individual interventions in facilitating long-term maintenance of behavioural changes in one or both members of a couple. Despite strong rationales that couple-focused interventions could be effective globally, couples studies are seldom undertaken in SSA and few couple-focused health interventions have been rigorously evaluated. My research programme will focus on achieving this.”


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