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Medicine and ministry

“I was always curious why some diseases could be cured and others not,” says Dr. Oveta Fuller. Her lifelong journey to answer that question has led her on a path that some people might find unlikely. Dr. Fuller combines rigorous scientific research with the power of faith to combat HIV/AIDS and herpes in the US and Africa. Her aim: to help solve the worldwide problem of AIDS at the root.

Fuller, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School, has studied and taught at the U-M since 1988, with a focus on human viral pathogens. That focus now includes HIV/AIDS.But she’s not just a respected researcher. She’s also the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Adrian, Michigan. As a doctor and as a pastor, she’s worked to stop the spread of disease. But when she combined her scientific credentials with her understanding of church outreach, she found an even more effective approach.

Her recent work to help stop HIV transmission in sub-Saharan Africa exemplifies a trend toward fighting the disease by giving local people the knowledge to take up the challenge themselves. Fuller’s approach is to give local pastors the science and training they need to help their community members fight the spread of HIV/AIDS themselves.”A person can see the issue of AIDS portrayed in television documentaries,” Fuller says. “But another level is reached when a person realizes…that they are an important part of stopping the pandemic.””We can stop HIV with the knowledge that we have already,” she emphasizes.

AIDS and herpes, she explains, can be called “silent diseases,” meaning that they are prevalent, but people do not like to talk about them. “People are afraid or reluctant to talk or ask about these in order not to become excluded from society,” says Fuller. Such silence makes these viruses even more dangerous, because we do not know when they have reached our community and are silently spreading.”People need to understand why it is relatively easy to prevent the spread of HIV. This virus, in some ways, can be easier to control than influenza virus or the common cold virus,” she says.

Fuller’s acquaintance with infectious diseases officially began when she decided to study microbiology at the University of North Carolina. She finished her BA and PhD with full academic scholarships in 1983. Afterwards she spent four years in postdoctoral studies at the University of Chicago with a special focus on herpes viruses. During this time Fuller worked closely with Dr. Patricia Spear, who was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences for her pioneering studies of herpes simplex virus (HSV).At U-M, she says, “my research team and I sought to understand how viruses first enter into cells.” The laboratory studies focused on how HSV enters into cells to begin reproducing itself.

But in recent years, she found it wasn’t enough to study the mechanisms of disease. She watched with alarm as AIDS continued to spread, particularly through Africa and among African Americans.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the estimated number of new HIV infections in the USA in 2006 jumped to 56,300 from a previous annual average estimate of 40,000. African Americans are particularly affected by HIV/AIDS: while comprising 13% of the USA population, they accounted for 45% of all new HIV infections in 2006.The estimates show that, contrary to what many people thought, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the US is far from over. That’s one reason for a heightened alert issued in March, 2007, by the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) for a need to address HIV/AIDS among African Americans. Fuller took up the challenge, emphasizing HIV prevention in her research—and in her calling as a pastor.”I have made a change in the microbiology research because HIV prevention is something that can be done now, something that I was uniquely prepared to do as a virologist and clergyperson.”

Her professional and personal concerns led her to work both in the US and Africa on prevention. Since 2004, she’s traveled several times to southern Africa with the AME’s Service and Development Agency (AME–SADA), the international service arm of the AME Church.During a year-long sabbatical in 2005-06, Fuller worked in several countries in southern Africa, a region disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS.She helped in what’s called a “faith leader intervention model.” The idea was to provide basic scientific facts about HIV/AIDS to local clergy and religious figures, who could then pass on the facts to their congregations.The faith leader intervention model teaches the “ABC system,” three simple rules to prevent HIV transmission: * Abstinence from or delaying engagement in sexual activity and avoiding I.V. drug use, * Being faithful to one sexual partner whose HIV status you know, and * Correct and Consistent use of latex Condoms for every sexual interaction to avoid direct contact with fluids that contain the virus.”As long as people follow these ABCs of HIV prevention, they can prevent the HIV/AIDS virus from entering into their body,” explains Fuller.

Robert Nicolas, director of the AME Service and Development Agency , worked with Fuller during her sabbatical year. “Dr. Fuller has a very sensitive approach to people that helps to send her message out. Her special combination of power–pastor of the AME church–in addition to the fact that she is a scientist and researcher made our work even more successful.

“We had great results with the [ABC] training model. Surveys that we did before and after the education training show that the knowledge of target groups has increased. We educated people on HIV in areas where this hasn’t been done before.”Back in the US, Carrie Rheingans, community director of the HIV/AIDS Resource Center in Ann Arbor, has worked with the ABC training model with Dr. Fuller and helped apply for grant money for the project. “The model is revolutionary, highly applicable and worth continuing,” she says. “Especially because we train people in order to make people able to educate each other.” Fuller says the science/religion approach can also work with other public health issues, and in other places. She notes that faith networks in the US already work with researchers from U-M and elsewhere to combat diabetes, hypertension, cancer and nutrition.

Fuller has also begun collaborating with the Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) at Vanderbilt University and Meharry Medical College, where researchers use a similar approach with faith communities in Tennessee and the southeastern US.Says Fuller, “We want to expand these studies using interdenominational network contacts throughout North America and southern Africa, and to wherever it can have an impact with people where they live.”

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