Domestic AIDS strategy aims to curb new infections through social media
Professor’s research may provide information about how to reach high-risk groups
Last week President Barack Obama released a new domestic AIDS strategy which aims to cut new infections by 25 percent, increase access to care and educate Americans about HIV. With 56,000 Americans testing positive every year and more than 1.1 million people already living with the disease, the need for the strategy is great.
The most affected groups are blacks, gay and bisexual men and Hispanics, yet only 79 percent of those infected know it, states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The plan aims to get that number up to 90 percent by 2015, but agencies will need appropriate education tools to reach them.
The new strategy urges state and federal agencies to utilize social marketing and education campaigns to reach these groups. Sheana Bull, PhD, MPH, associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health is ahead of the game when it comes to utilizing social media to prevent HIV; however, she believes there is still more to learn.
“I think we don’t know enough about how to connect with populations at highest risk for HIV/AIDS and we don’t know enough about how these populations are using social media,” states Dr. Bull. “Beyond that, we haven’t done enough research to know if social media impacts risky behaviors, access to care or incidence reduction.”
In partnership with the Media Education Entertainment Productions, Inc., Dr. Bull recently completed a pilot project in Philadelphia that utilized cell phones to reach young black men aged 16-20 with HIV prevention messages.
The 411 for Safe Text Project recruited 60 young black men, the biggest consumers of mobile phone minutes, to participate in a three-month study. During the study the invention group received 36 text messages about condom use, monogamy and abstinence.
At the end of the study, the results showed promise for recruiting and retaining black men and for using cell phones as an education tool, says Dr. Bull. She is now looking for funding to conduct a larger 411 study in the District of Columbia, where HIV rates among black men are high.
President Obama’s new plan does not include any new funding above the $19 billion the United States already spends a year on domestic HIV prevention, care and research. Instead it shifts $30 million towards prevention programs for high-risk groups.
“I think that the focus on the high-risk groups is great. One challenge is: how do you get prevention and treatment services delivered to these high-risk communities when they lack access to them or awareness of how to access services?” asks Dr. Bull.
“These groups often do not realize they have access to care and medications and there remains significant stigma among members of communities at high risk for HIV towards homosexuality, drug use and HIV disease, so individuals may keep risky behaviors and an HIV diagnosis a secret,” she continues.
Dr. Bull believes social media may be able to reduce stigma and spread prevention messages to at-risk groups. She says much of past HIV research has focused primarily on the individual instead of the community. Social media changes that.
“We don’t know the appropriate ways to tap into people’s social networks that may influence their risky decisions,” Dr. Bull says. “Social media gives us the opportunity to use individuals who are influential in their social networks to spread prevention messages to their friends, who we may not have reached otherwise.”
Dr. Bull’s latest study will explore whether Facebook is an effective tool to deliver HIV prevention messages. This will be the first research trial for HIV prevention using Facebook and offers an opportunity to understand how best to connect with and engage youth on a social networking platform.
One quarter of new HIV infections occur among adolescents and young adults aged 13 to 29, according to the CDC. Currently, Dr. Bull’s project is recruiting people aged 16 to 25, who use Facebook, to participate in the study.
In time, Dr. Bull’s research will provide much needed research about the effectiveness of social media in reducing new HIV infections and educating young Americans about the disease – two goals of the new domestic AIDS strategy.
Interested in participating in Dr. Bull’s research trial for HIV prevention using Facebook? Are you between the ages of 16 and 25 and use Facebook? You will receive incentives for participation and additional incentives for recruiting your friends who use Facebook to participate. For more information and to learn if you are eligible, please contact Erin Wright at email@example.com or call/text 720-690-4723.