By CBSLA Staff

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — A mobile app is hoping to join the fight in reducing the spread of HIV among young transgender women, and a UCLA professor is helping to lead the effort.

The app LifeSkills Mobile, a digital version of a group intervention that is delivered in person, called Project LifeSkills, allows high-risk people among this population to access information on HIV prevention strategies through their mobile devices.

“Project LifeSkills is currently the only ‘best evidence’ HIV risk-reduction intervention for young transgender women included among the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s compendium of evidence-based HIV interventions,” said Lisa Kuhns, associate director of the Center for Gender, Sexuality and HIV Prevention at Lurie Children’s Hospital. “The new funding has the potential to scale this intervention widely via mobile devices, extending access to many hard-to-reach and high-need young transgender women who experience barriers to participating in a face-to-face intervention.”

An $8.8 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was awarded to the team of researchers from UCLA, USC and Northwestern, looking to address disparities in HIV prevention and care.

HIV infection rates are particularly high for transgender women, according to Matthew Mimiaga, a principal investigator on the project, who is also director of the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for LGBTQ Advocacy, Research & Health.

An estimated 28% of transgender women have HIV, and in a recent study, 12% of transgender women were found to have previously undiagnosed HIV. The rate increased to 45% for transgender women between the ages of 18 and 29.

“For this study, we are partnering with transgender-specific organizations for maximum impact,” said Marvin Belzer, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and head of the adolescent medicine division at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Given that this population is a high-risk group for HIV infection and face numerous transgender-specific barriers to consistent condom use and pre-exposure prophylaxis linkage and uptake, they represent a group in great need of effective strategies to decrease HIV incidence.”

The initiative is set to be a  five-year project that will assess how mobile intervention can improve health outcomes. The study will enroll 5,000 young transgender women between the ages of 16 and 29.

“The constant and unrelenting exposure to gender minority stigma, compounded by the psychosocial challenges associated with social disadvantage and economic marginalization, exacerbates disparities in HIV incidence among young transgender women,” Mimiaga said in a news release. “This can lead to behaviors such as substance use, sex work, health care avoidance and others that increase HIV acquisition risk.”