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Updated 10:00 AM November 21, 2005




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U-M microbiology professor takes yearlong sabbatical to fight HIV-AIDS

The HIV-AIDS pandemic continues to grow as 1 in every 100 people worldwide is infected with HIV and about 6,000 die from AIDS-related illnesses every hour. "That's particularly frustrating because the disease is preventable," laments A. Oveta Fuller, associate professor of microbiology and immunology in the Medical School.
The Children of Agape Choir, which is made up of South African children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS, perform at the UMHS. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

"People don't understand, it's a relatively fragile virus," says Fuller, who has taken a sabbatical to teach clergy and religious leaders in Africa and the United States the biology behind how easy it is to stop the spread of HIV, a message they can pass on to their congregations.

Fuller, who serves as pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Adrian, says she became active in workshops and other efforts to promote HIV-AIDS awareness in the late 1980s, in her postdoctoral position at the University of Chicago.

She joined the U-M faculty in 1988, pursued her academic career, ran a virology research lab and began raising a family, before addressing the call in 1993 to be trained to serve in ministry for her church. Fuller first served as an ordained Elder in Ypsilanti where she organized a young adult ministry that included some U-M graduate students. The work with young people reminded her that biology-based HIV prevention efforts were important to pursue.

While attending an American Society for Virology conference in 2000 in Colorado, Fuller realized she should be doing even more to foster HIV-AIDS awareness.

"The entire first day of the conference was dedicated to research results about the HIV pandemic. I realized, I'm a virologist—I teach about how it works. Viruses have to go into a host and into a cell to reproduce. That has been the key focus of my academic research life. If most people knew just a little bit about how easy it is to prevent, they could make wiser choices about what they do."

"If you can block the transmission of HIV, you've essentially blocked infection of this virus," she explains.

While the HIV epidemic in Africa has drawn particular media attention, Fuller says that HIV-AIDS is a worldwide problem, as an estimated 50 million currently are infected and 25 million have died of AIDS.

"A person may not know they are infected until months or years after they're infected. Unknowingly, they may have spread it to others." Fuller says. In some countries in Africa, life expectancy has fallen from age 63 or so, to around 40 due to AIDS. "The middle generation is being wiped out," Fuller says. "You see children and older people, but often you don't see the young adult parents. That is what I saw in Botswana in 2004, and that is what you see often in sub-Saharan Africa." The AME Church has already established a prevention and awareness center in Botswana.

"In the sabbatical year, I will be trying to teach leaders in the church and in seminaries, how easy it is to prevent, yet how prevalent it is," Fuller says. "I want to empower them to effectively teach youth and others, a reframed message that HIV is a preventable virus infection."

Fuller was scheduled Nov. 18 to lead an HIV-AIDS awareness workshop at the University for the Children of Agape Choir, from the Agape Orphanage located outside of Durban, South Africa. The children, ranging in age from 8-16, have lost one or both of their parents to HIV-AIDS. They are touring the U.S. to give concerts and promote the sales of their CD to raise money to help rebuild their orphanage, which was destroyed by fire earlier this year.

The children's group also was scheduled to tour the U-M campus including the MI Nanotechnology Institute and the Visible Human Project. Their area appearances, which included a Benefit Concert hosted by Fuller's church in Adrian, were sponsored by the Friends of Agape (former volunteers), U-M Health Systems Diversity Network, and AME Church.

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