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RTI Stories

ENVISION, Ebola, HIV and Zika: RTI and Global Health

Educating the public about—and helping to prevent—diseases around the globe

The 2010's are virtually synonymous with RTI's work on ENVISION—a project, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, whose goal is to control or eliminate seven neglected tropical diseases including trachoma, schistosomiasis, and lymphatic filariasis. Since the launch of ENVISION in September 2011, RTI staff have produced notable results in Cambodia, Nepal, and Laos, and the fight against these insidious diseases continues today.

Soon after the launch of ENVISION, RTI was called upon to deal with yet another tropical disease—Ebola. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the United States had approximately 3,000 troops and health care workers deployed in the area. Anticipating a need to transport highly infectious patients, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency sought a technical solution to modify existing isolation units to transport six or more patients at once. Typically, a system of this complexity would have taken two years to design and produce, but RTI experts were able to move from concept to manufacturing in five months.

Although it's not nearly as dangerous as Ebola, the Zika bacterium, carried by mosquitoes, poses an ongoing threat to public health. In August 2016, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy stated that one in four of Puerto Rico's nearly 3.5 million residents could be infected with the Zika virus by the end of that year; by December 2016, more than 33,000 cases had been reported, 97 percent of them locally acquired. Zika during pregnancy is a cause of microcephaly and other severe brain defects, which made this outbreak a serious risk to pregnant women.

In the face of this threat, the Centers for Disease Control Foundation asked RTI's communication science and social marketing experts to create and implement a campaign for pregnant women in Puerto Rico. The Institute created a theory-based, audience-informed, multichannel social marketing campaign that included television and radio interviews and public service announcements, national and regional newspaper ads, billboards, social media, web, and mobile ads and banners, as well as engagement with traditional and social media influencers across Puerto Rico.

In the last decade, RTI has also been deeply involved in HIV prevention. Under the Thin-film Polymer Device Injectable for Prevention Program, researchers have been working on a long-acting, biodegradable implant for HIV prevention in women. When implanted subcutaneously, this device releases a steady dose of antiretroviral drugs into the bloodstream for continuous protection from HIV; it then naturally and safely biodegrades after the drug has been released rather than having to be surgically removed.

As this implant continues to be developed, RTI scientists hope to test it in humans within the next three years, with the aim of having a novel, long-acting antiretroviral delivery system on the market within 10 years. Understanding that the process from drug and device development to market often takes decades, this implant has the potential to be a game changer for HIV prevention worldwide.