Oct. 1, 2013

Vaniers: Medicine researcher looks beneath surface of AIDs treatment

Jody Boffa: ‘There’s stigma, rumour and blame around a disease like TB/HIV’
Jody Boffa has discovered taxi drivers in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal can provide a valuable social perspective, as she explores the effects of a drug which helps prevent people from developing tuberculosis.

Jody Boffa discovered taxi drivers in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africe, can provide a social perspective.

Jody Boffa’s research has taken her to the epicentre of the TB-HIV epidemic, but most people would be surprised to learn how she conducts some of her research.

Taxi drivers are a wealth of information, says Boffa, who received the Vanier Scholarship for her studies on the effects of drugs that may help prevent the onset of tuberculosis in people with HIV. The drivers, she says, have their fingers on the pulse of the community.

“They hear conversations all day long.” They know what people in the community really think. She finds they have a good sense of how locals feel about people being offered Isoniazid Preventive Therapy (IPT) for tuberculosis.

The award provides $50,000 a year for three years. Boffa is one of eight Vanier recipients at the University of Calgary this year, and one of three from the Department of Community Health Sciences.

“It was such as an amazing feeling to find out. The money is a lifesaver, but the greatest part is the recognition,” she says.

Incidences of HIV are beginning to stabilize and people with HIV are living longer and better lives thanks to antiretro-viral drugs, but in sub-Saharan Africa, tuberculosis is the number one cause of AIDS-related deaths.

Boffa is working in the rural and semi-urban areas around Pietermaritzburg, the capital city of the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, which has prolific rates of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and TB-HIV co-infection. Her research centres on the quantitative effects of a drug which helps prevent people from developing tuberculosis and the qualitative experience of the communities where it is implemented.

In 2000, she spent a year Durban, South Africa, on an exchange program as a University of Alberta undergrad psychology student studying lucid dreaming. But after seeing the devastation of HIV, “I realized people were dying and I felt this area of research was more pressing,” she says.

“There’s stigma, rumour and blame around a disease like TB/HIV, and that’s what really got me interested.”

Boffa also works at Edendale, a public hospital for poor Africans, with Dr. Douglas Wilson, head of medicine at the hospital and a leader in TB/HIV research. Wilson told her, “ ‘If you want to be in the thick of the TB/HIV epidemic, then come here’ … It was an incredible opportunity and he was totally willing to work with me,” Boffa says.

But there are others who believe in Boffa and her work, such as Maria Mayan at the University of Alberta, and University of Calgary doctors Bob Cowie and Dina Fisher, in the Faculty of Medicine, both of whom have deep connections to South Africa. “She put a huge amount of work into her application,” says Cowie of the award. “It’s really well deserved.”

Cowie believes Boffa’s research goes beyond making medications available to people, but really “looking under the bushes. She’s also looking at the attitudes and beliefs of people living with HIV.”

Boffa says the Vanier award is a gift. “Now that I have this, I’m set. I don’t have to worry about the financial part. Now I can concentrate on the research, and that’s every researcher’s dream.” Her other hope is to preserve what she calls “the beautiful Zulu culture.

“TB should not be killing anybody anymore. These are diseases of poverty. Yes, there are cultural differences, but people here want the same things as we do.”