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Study Finds Past Sexual and Physical Abuse Can Impact Ability to Adhere to Medication

By Kellee Terrell

March 20, 2012

Can past trauma play a negative role in the health outcomes of someone living with HIV/AIDS?

A two-year study conducted at the Duke Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research (CHPIR) confirms mounting data that says, "Yes."

Researchers from the Coping with HIV/AIDS in the Southeast (CHASE) study asked 600 people living with HIV/AIDS if they experienced any type of violence or sexual abuse growing up, and what they learned was eye-opening. Half of the participants have a history of childhood abuse and trauma, and one in four had been sexually abused. Researchers also found that people who had a history of this type of trauma experienced worse health outcomes than those who did not.

According to a Duke University press release, the study also found that:

Brian Pence, Ph.D., one of the authors of the study, told, "What really stood out for us was just how common abuse was among this pretty general sample of people living with HIV. It didn't really matter which outcome we looked at -- sexual risk behaviors, medication adherence, current health -- these patients also had the worst health outcomes."

Why exactly this connection exists isn't really known, though. Pence said that when they factored in the traditional reasons why trauma would impact adherence -- such as depression and drug and alcohol use -- they still saw poor health outcomes with people who weren't struggling with those same issues. "Right now we now have more questions than we do answers," he admitted.

But what Pence and the other researchers know for sure is the study's findings illuminate the need for doctors with HIV-positive patients to better screen for past trauma. "With the goal of optimizing health, we hope to raise awareness and develop health systems that ask about past traumatic experiences, provide coping strategies," he said, "so patients can be able to take the best care of themselves that they can."

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.

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