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Promoting prevention

Devastation caused by HIV/AIDS in Africa inspires K-State professor to act

 

Nancy Muturi, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at K-State, has a passion for understanding HIV/AIDS and for finding ways to control it.

Nancy MuturiMuturi was born and raised in rural central Kenya, an agricultural area with a high population density. She attended the University of Nairobi, and worked in the city of Nairobi upon graduation. Later, Muturi came to the United States to study at the University of Iowa in pursuit of her Ph.D.

Like most Kenyans, Muturi has stayed very close to her rural African connections. Since leaving Kenya, Muturi said that life in Africa has changed in many ways -- culturally, economically and politically. Kenya also has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS cases.

"What affects me most is when I return to my community, and rather than finding people I grew up with, I find their young children who have been orphaned by AIDS," Muturi said. "It is very depressing when you see such children who have little hope because there is no one to take care of them."

Although some of these children have grandparents, Muturi said many of these grandparents are not financially able to care for grandchildren. She called the situation disheartening and said it is what motivates her to continue on with her research on HIV/AIDS communication.

"You see the impact it has, people dying every day," Muturi said. "You can’t really avoid wanting to do something about it."

Muturi traveled to Africa recently to visit several institutions, including the National University of Lesotho, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and Nairobi University. As part of K-State’s continued partnership with African institutions, Muturi helps them with research, training, grant writing and communication strategies. She has been awarded the Rotary Foundation Grant for University Teachers, which will send her to Nairobi for three months this summer to help in the establishment of a communications program at Nairobi University.

Muturi with Kenyan children orphaned by HIV/AIDS"My most recent visit to Africa helped me to see what I need to be working on, what they need me for this summer and how I can really help," Muturi said. "I don’t want to go there and waste time. I want them to use me as much as they can."

Muturi incorporates her passion for HIV/AIDS research into the classes that she teaches at K-State. She uses a community service learning approach to engage students in the learning process. Her public relations campaigns class recently finished up a semester-long campaign which focused on the communication of HIV/AIDS in the Manhattan area. The class conducted a journalism workshop to help sensitize local journalists to address the problem of HIV/AIDS in the region. During World AIDS Week in early December, the class also managed testing sites on campus and throughout the community.

"My greatest reward is when I see the outcome of our hard work," Muturi said. "This year, our goal was to get K-State students and community members tested for HIV. We got more than 100 people tested in three days. Just seeing people come up and talk to us about it, wanting to learn more about the disease and how they can protect themselves, that is very rewarding to me."

Muturi said that one of the roadblocks facing HIV/AIDS communication is changing peoples’ stereotype that HIV/AIDS is only something that affects other countries. She said that many people in the U.S. choose to ignore the disease, even though the same behaviors that caused the spread in other countries are the same behaviors and practices that are seen in the U.S. today.

"I think that communication has a key role to play in this. Yet, we are not achieving what we need to," Muturi said. "That really gets me going. I want to put as much as I can into trying to understand the problem, and also finding ways to partner with others to address this epidemic."

While researchers all over the world are working to find a cure for HIV/AIDS, Muturi said her work will never stop, even if there is a cure.

"People ask me what I will do when they find a cure for HIV/AIDS and I tell them that people will always practice unsafe sex and will contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases," she said. "If there is a cure, that would be wonderful, but prevention is the best option. Communication about prevention will always be necessary."

 

Photos: (Left) Nancy Muturi, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications, displays some of the marketing pieces her public relations students put together to promote HIV/AIDS awareness among college-aged and minority audiences in Manhattan. (Right) Muturi works with Kenyan children orphaned by HIV/AIDS when she travels to Africa.