Q and A with Dr Roger Detels on working in China to train HIV/AIDS researchers

September / October 2015 | Volume 14, Issue 5

Headshot of Dr Roger Detels

Roger Detels, M.D., M.S.

Dr. Roger Detels is distinguished professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Public Health. He has been active in HIV/AIDS and public health research for nearly 35 years. He directs the Los Angeles Center for the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS), one of the largest natural history studies of HIV/AIDS in the world.

Since 1988, he has headed Fogarty's HIV/AIDS research and training grants at UCLA, which train health professionals in several Asian countries, including China. In 2011, Detels received an award for Outstanding Achievement in International Cooperation Programs on HIV/AIDS from the Chinese Ministry of Health.

How has research in China evolved since your Fogarty grant began?

Their research capacity was pretty rudimentary before the Fogarty Program was initiated. The government was shifting from what it had been under Mao Zedong to more of a capitalist society and I think that stimulated a renewed interest in science. About that time they realized they needed to improve the quality of their research and, typically for China, committed themselves to improving their research capacity and training.

I work primarily with the National Center for AIDS and STIs, which is part of the China Centers for Disease Control. The quality and capacity of the program has developed tremendously under the director, who is in fact a graduate of our program. They were the group that first identified the outbreak of HIV in plasma donors in several of the provinces in eastern and central China. Then they did some studies looking at the safety of the blood supply in rural areas in China and set up a real-time HIV/AIDS case reporting system that’s probably one of the best in the world. They’ve also implemented both needle exchange and methadone programs and have done quite a bit of work on evaluation of those programs in China. These are only a small sample of the many studies they have conducted, which have contributed to HIV control in China.

What skills have trainees gained?

We made the decision very early that we were going to concentrate our efforts not on short-term courses or short-term training but on Ph.D. training. We thought that would have the greatest impact on building their research capacity. The graduates would then be able to go back to China and actually begin to develop their own research programs, which would meet international standards. One of the important components of our training program is to instill into our trainees the importance of international standards and ethical conduct of research. I think we’ve been reasonably successful at doing that. Many of the graduates have gone back to the China CDC and have implemented public health intervention programs.

What is the long-term impact on research and policy?

These graduates return to good positions. The vast majority of them are in their early-to-mid-30s when they return to China. So, they’ve got a 25- to 30-year career ahead of them to conduct research and lead research and academic programs. Many of our graduates have become directors of provincial and metropolitan CDC programs, and many of them have joined the universities as professors. One, Dr. He Na, has already become the dean of the school of public health at Fudan University. And, of course, the director of the AIDS control program for China’s CDC, Dr. Zunyou Wu, has an international reputation and has obtained funding for research and training from the NIH, from the Global Fund and from the Gates Foundation.

One aspect of our program is that when the trainees develop a dissertation topic, that project has to be conducted in China and has to have a policy implication. China is a particularly rewarding country in which to work because much of what we and our graduates have done has been converted into policy within a matter of months. For example, when we found the outbreak of HIV in plasma donors and identified the majority of this was being done by donor centers that were not licensed, China immediately closed down of all the illegal plasma donation centers. And, when one of our graduates evaluated methadone maintenance and showed that it reduced the crime rate in areas where it was implemented, the government made a policy to support methadone maintenance programs throughout the country. So the idea to require the students to do dissertation research that’s going to have policy implications and assist the government in developing effective policies has contributed to building China’s research capacity and the control of HIV.

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