The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded a $2 million grant to Georgetown researchers to continue HIV surveillance and to develop a secure data-sharing tool for public health agencies across the country.
The grant, which will provide funding for five years, will help researchers further develop the privacy-centered framework that avoids permanent storage of individual data and eliminate duplicate counts of cases in the National HIV Surveillance System. The grant period for the university began Jan. 1, 2018, and will continue through Dec. 31, 2022.
The strength of the research will be due to the expertise of professionals in multiple disciplines, including computer science, medicine and public health, according to Joanne Michelle Ocampo, project director in public health informatics for the Office of the Senior Vice President for Research and Georgetown’s Medical Center.
“This project is the direct result of years building collaborative public-private partnerships across public health agencies and academia and greatly illustrates how fruitful this type of interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral work can be,” Ocampo said in a April 23 news release.
The CDC’s National HIV Surveillance System is the primary arrangement for monitoring HIV cases in the United States, according to the CDC’s website. The CDC funds and assists state and local health departments with collecting the data.
Dr. Seble Kassaye, associate professor in Georgetown’s School of Medicine and co-principal investigator on the project, said the technology will help both those with the disease and also those trying to stop its spread.
“Implementing this technology in the public health sphere will allow agencies and departments to have updated, comprehensive and accurate information regarding progress toward our national HIV treatment goals to achieve high levels of viral suppression,” Kassaye said in the news release. “This is both for the benefit of the individual as well as to mitigate ongoing transmission of HIV.”
Currently, health departments and agencies report anonymous HIV data to the CDC so nationwide information can be analyzed to determine who is affected by the disease, and why. The goal of the research is to continue monitoring instances of HIV in the United States, while carefully maintaining the privacy of the individuals who have contracted the disease.
The Surveillance System has been collecting data since 1981, the same year the AIDS epidemic was first officially reported by the CDC, according to HIV.gov.
The HIV and AIDS surveillance activities typically consist of four major sources: hospitals, physicians, public and private clinics and medical records systems such as death certificates, according to an affiliate website of the CDC. Using a standard confidential case report, health departments collect information and transmit it to CDC electronically, omitting personally identifying information.
The research conducted using the grant will take a “socio-technical approach,” according to a university news release. This approach provides significant privacy protections to the data submitted. Users cannot access the system while data is being processed and the system only analyzes data while it is isolated in computer memory. Researchers hope that these unconventional approaches will help protect privacy while taking advantage of nationwide HIV statistics.
“This award is an important contribution toward fighting the HIV epidemic and further strengthens Georgetown’s leadership in privacy-preserving, big-data analytics,” Spiros Dimolitsas, senior vice president of research, said in a news release.