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Digitizing the fight against HIV

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Digitizing the fight against HIV


Prince Coleman watches an online soap opera. The lead characters are entangled in tricky love affairs.

This story line focuses on young gay and bisexual men—men like Coleman. One character tries to guess if his new lover is HIV positive—a dangerous practice.

“In the gay community a lot people do hook ups,” Coleman said. “It’s always sex first and then get to know each other later. And I think that where we go wrong.”

The video is part of a study by Northwestern University researchers looking at how effective online interventions are in reinforcing safe sex practices to young, gay and bisexual men. Northwestern took the message to where this digital-savvy demographic feels most comfortable—the internet.

Getting that information to young African-American men is especially vital since new HIV infection rates for this group jumped nearly 50% between 2006 and 2009. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, black men had the highest rate of new HIV infections of all groups studied.

“We don’t really know why all the reasons in this particular group HIV is increasing,” said Dr. Brian Mustanski, professor at Northwestern’s department of medical social sciences. He led the study conducted by IMPACT— The Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Health and Development Program. This group focuses on research aimed at eliminating physical and mental health disparities experienced by the LGBT community.

“We know they are less likely to get relevant sex education in schools,” Mustanski said. “We know their parents are less likely to talk to them about sexual health, sexual prevention than other kids. And so we really need to find ways to reach them with this important information.”

The study involves a program called “Keep It Up” and includes different online modules. Along with the soap opera, there’s a video game and short documentaries on gay relationships. Each delivers prevention messages, including always use a condom, and never assume a partner is HIV negative.

To find participants, IMPACT partnered with clinics that do HIV testing around Chicago. 

“They had to come in for their HIV test. So they were already concerned about their health,” said Jill Dispenza, director of HIV testing at Chicago’s Center on Halsted.

Once a man’s tests came back negative, staffers offered one-on-one counseling. If these men were between 18 and 24, they were invited to join the study.

The online video game is a virtual reality club and one of the more popular activities. 
Players can order drinks in the lounge or pick up a guy on the dance floor.

“There are a lot of objects you interact with in the club that teach you different information about HIV prevention,” Mustanski said.

Each time a player makes a decision for safer sex, the reward is condoms—which IMPACT then sends participants in the mail.

“It’s a fun game but it’s consistent, important fact-based messages that they’re getting in a really fun way though it doesn’t feel like someone is lecturing them,” Dispenza said.

The study’s results are under review for publication. But early findings are hopeful.

“We found there was almost a 50% reduction in HIV risk behaviors of those men in the keep it up intervention compared to those in the control group,” Mustanski said.

Following President Obama’s lead in placing disease prevention as a national priority
Chicago’s Department of Health is following suit.  Last month, the City granted $5 million in HIV prevention funds throughout the city.

“There are 20,391 residents living with HIV in Chicago,” said Dr. Bechara Chourair, the city’s public health commissioner.  “We also think there is around 5,000 more but they aren’t aware of their status. So we know there are over 25,000 residents living with HIV in Chicago.”

As part of the prevention program, the city granted $225,000 to Center on Halsted, allowing the Keep It Up program to continue.

“It focuses a lot of innovation and social media. And it’s a very strong method to reach out to these young men who have sex with men population that we want to reach out to,”  Chourair said.

Mustanski hopes it is a first step toward allowing the program to continue throughout Chicago….and eventually rolling it out nationally, allowing others to view the soap opera that Coleman watched.

The video shows what young men can face in their relationships and how these issues affect their safe sex choices. In the story where a man assumes his partner is HIV negative, he finds out the hard way that his new lover is not.

“And that’s the kind of dangerous assumptions that people can make in relationships that it’s someone else’s job to bring up HIV,” Mustanski said.

For Colman, the story line hit home.

“It actually felt like I knew the guys. I was there, was maybe in a situation where I was seeing someone who was in a situation like that,” he said. “So now, every time I meet a guy or want to hook up with a guy I will definitely want to ask those questions first. And I will always use protection.”

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