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Kirk Dombrowski

Roughly 80 percent of injecting drug users in rural Puerto Rico have hepatitis C, and about 7 percent have HIV, a UNL sociologist has found. Kirk Dombrowski is using his expertise in studying how people form social connections to explore how drug users’ social lives influence disease spread.

Ultimately, this research should identify effective prevention strategies for rural areas. This work is part of UNL’s Minority Health Disparities Initiative, which targets understudied health issues.

“The bulk of the interventions used to prevent the spread of HIV, for example, are designed for urban areas,” said Dombrowski, who heads the initiative. “Puerto Rico makes a nice test case for other rural areas, especially when we look at Native American populations, which have much higher hepatitis C rates than most.”

Dombrowski and collaborators are surveying Puerto Rican drug users to understand how they form social relationships and communicate information. Computers help analyze how social networks evolve over time in relation to risky behavior. This information will help researchers identify effective interventions. A $2.9 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute for Drug Abuse supports this work.

“Social network analysis is an innovative method that we feel could go a long way toward helping us understand what is and is not working.”

In a different setting, Dombrowski is using similar social network analysis to study suicide prevention strategies in Alaskan native populations, where suicide rates, like those in Midwestern native populations, are high. He collaborates with University of Massachusetts Amherst colleagues on this work funded by NIH’s Institute for Mental Health.

“Social network analysis is an innovative method that we feel could go a long way toward helping us understand what is and is not working,” Dombrowski said.

UNL’s Minority Health Disparities Initiative also is training the next generation to use social network analysis to solve minority health issues. In summer 2015, it hosted 10 undergraduates from around the nation who studied and worked with UNL research mentors. This new program, funded by a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant, is the nation’s only REU to explore minority health disparities.

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