Psychology Graduate Students Publish Study on HIV Prevention Among Injection Drug Users
Erin Cooper (Class of ’10, M.A., psychology) and Chaka Dodson, graduate student, psychology, have had their study, “Pharmacy participation in nonprescription syringe sales in Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties, 2007” published online in the Journal of Urban Health. The study, which has been instrumental in ongoing legislative debates about providing clean syringes to injection drug users for purposes of preventing HIV, will also appear in a print version of the journal later in July.
Cooper and Dodson conducted in-person and telephone interviews of pharmacists in Los Angeles and San Francisco for the study and also trained and supervised the work of student volunteers from a research workshop class taught by Dr. Ricky Bluthenthal, sociology professor and director of the Urban Community Research Center at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
The team was surprised to discover a significant difference between attitudes in their sample regions. Pharmacists in Los Angeles were found to be more likely to turn away suspected injection drug users than those in San Francisco.
“Seventy-four percent of L.A. pharmacists turned away suspected injection drug users for purchase of clean syringes while only 33 percent of San Francisco pharmacists turned them away,” says Dodson. “These findings left me thinking that shared ideas by pharmacists who promote harm reduction could aid in influencing the practices of pharmacists who do not.”
Cooper and Dodson were inspired to pursue their research by Bluthenthal’s extensive research on the spread of HIV in minority communities and a desire to facilitate policy changes that would reduce the disproportionate effects of HIV on African American and Latino populations.
“Sometimes you think of research as experiments that happen in a lab with a Petri dish or a lab rat, but when you work on research like this you see that the research is real,” says Cooper. “I felt like my research really made a difference.”
Dodson will be applying to doctoral programs in clinical psychology this fall, with the goal of becoming a professor and researcher. She said she would like to return to her alma mater “to give students a learning experience that leaves a lasting impression, promotes intellectual enthusiasm and propels their educational possibilities to a new plateau.”
Cooper, who would also like to teach at CSU Dominguez Hills after earning her doctorate in public health or health psychology, says that her education at the university has prepared her for the world of clinical research, “because I have learned how to work with diverse types of people. Versatility and approachability is very important when working with clinical research participants.” Dodson is also currently working on a study that examines the psychosocial and neurocognitive issues associated with positive health outcomes among HIV/AIDS patients with Dr. Karen I. Mason, associate professor of psychology.
“Overall, I learned that research focusing on deviant behavior is controversial and therefore not well received or easily discussed,” says Dodson. “When faced with rejection or unpleasant responses, I remind myself that the populations I represent have no voice so it is my obligation to give them one.”
Cooper says that their ultimate goal is to help decrease the incidence of HIV in injection drug users, regardless of any societal judgment on their habit.
“Harm reduction is not promoting or demoting drug use, but if a person is partaking in drug use then the concept is to keep the person as safe as possible,” she says. “I view the idea of allowing injection drug users access to clean syringes as a cyclical mechanism. Moreover, if injection drug users’ risky behaviors are reduced, then ultimately the rate of HIV and Hepatitis C infections will be reduced. And a reduction of the rates of infections is a plus for society as a whole.”
- Joanie Harmon