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Renata Dennis: On the frontlines of HIV testing, education

Renata Dennis is a training coordinator for the Southeast AIDS Training and Education Center.

As Renata Dennis watched the nation's first rapid at-home HIV tests trickle into the marketplace this month, she couldn't help reflecting  how far things have come.

A training coordinator for the Southeast AIDS Training and Education Center (SEATEC), based out of Emory's Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, Dennis travels the Southeast educating nurses, case managers, social workers, health educators and providers about HIV counseling and testing.

Dennis was a nursing student at Emory in the early 1980s when she first heard of the virus that causes AIDS. In the years that followed, she's witnessed profound change around attitudes and advancements concerning HIV, which still produces about 50,000 new infections each year in the U.S.

With two degrees from Emory — she earned a bachelor of science in nursing in 1983 and a master of public health in 1997 — Dennis appreciates an environment supportive of health educators, knowing that their work makes a difference.

Only recently, she discovered just how deep her Emory roots run: three of her cousins also now attend the University.

Dennis talks with Emory Report about how she found her way from pediatric nursing to working on the frontlines of HIV testing:

What drew you to Emory?

My dad was in the military, stationed all over the East Coast and the South. But I call Georgia home because I came here to go to nursing school in 1981. I already had a biology degree from Wheaton College and my parents were living here. I was thinking about nursing school, medical school, public health, even full-time Christian ministry. But Emory's nursing program was tailor-made for me. It gave me a lot of good experience.

Your first focus was pediatric nursing. How did you make the leap to public health? 

I took some time off to pursue full-time Christian ministry activities — I was very involved with Emory Christian Fellowship while I was on campus. They had opportunities to go overseas, so I was in Germany for about a year and a half, then came home and worked in public health in Fulton County doing pediatric nursing, then went back overseas to Austria, working with university students for about four years.

I was home on a break in early '92 when I saw a banner on campus that said "School of Public Health," and I'm like, "Since when does Emory have a School of Public Health?" I took the GREs in Austria, came home in the summer of ‘93, and started coursework in January '94.

My first job after getting my public health degree was actually at Grady [Memorial Hospital] in the health education department.  I ended up working as a clinical coordinator on a CDC [Centers for Disease Control] study around pediatric asthma research. When the grant ended, I went on an Emory website and saw they needed a research nursing supervisor for a pediatric HIV program.

What does your job now encompass?

I'm an instructor and training coordinator. We work with six states in the Southeast; anybody who receives Ryan White (CARE Act federal) funding to take care of HIV patients are our priority for continuing education. There are new drugs and new treatment protocols every year.

Working around HIV education, what have been the biggest changes that you've witnessed?

The big success story has been in prevention of perinatal HIV transmission. Back in '94, there was a landmark article in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed you can give medication to a woman during her pregnancy, during delivery, and then the baby for six weeks, and prevent HIV transmissions. A lot of people think mother-to-baby transmission is automatic — it's not. In this country, an HIV-positive woman has about a 1 in 4 chance of transmitting HIV to her baby. Today, if the mother is medicated (with antiretroviral drugs)— and with the right maternal factors — you can drop that from a 25 percent transmission rate to about 2 percent. It's staggering.

Back in 2006, they estimate 25 percent of the people in the U.S. who had HIV didn't know they had it. In 2012, that number's down to about 20 percent, which is great. But they probably account for 50 to 54 percent of the new infections each year. People who know they're positive tend to do things to prevent transmission, but they don't know they're positive until they're tested.

Of course, there are still people who won't get tested. This summer, the FDA approved OraQuick, a rapid at-home HIV test that allows you to test and get your results at home, with the hope that people who are too afraid to go to their doctors or health departments will test at home.

How do your faith and your work fit together?

As a professional, I'm supposed to take care of everybody, not just someone who thinks the way I do. I hope I'm a safe person to talk to. People in churches and Christian groups find out what I do for a living and people will come to me after others have left and say, "my son has AIDS" or "my son is gay." Testing is sort of a neutral place. I mean, no matter how you feel about things, people need to get tested.

Your work is intense. How do you blow off steam?

I'm involved with several running groups — Atlanta-based Christian Runners, a local in-town group in Decatur, and a CDC group. I'm a "distance jogger," but I try to do a half-marathon every six months. My parents died of chronic diseases. They were great people, but they didn't always eat the best and they didn't exercise as well as they could have, and I thought, "I can't do anything about my genes, but I can do things about my environment." So that's part of the reason I run. Outside of that, I love to travel, I like museums, and I'm very involved with my church. I've done about 10 years of short-term mission trips to Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

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