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HIV study analyzes social media-based prevention strategies
by Matt Simonette
2018-03-29

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Researchers from Cook County Health & Hospitals System ( CCHHS ) are investigating how social media can be used as a tool to prevent new HIV transmissions.

The study, titled "Keeping it Lite: Exploring HIV Risk in Vulnerable Youth With Limited Interaction," implements ads and other modes of outreach on apps and websites such as Grindr, Tinder and Facebook to enroll both young men who have sex with men as well as transgender women, two demographics especially at risk for HIV infection. Transgender men are being sought as well.

According to CCHHS officials, participants will be offered access to HIV testing and prevention information as will take part in optional data-gathering about their health behaviors, sociodemographic characteristics and socioecological influences.

The purpose is "to make a cohort so we understand what it is about where they are finding their partners—their venues, their personal behaviors and their social networking"—and where they are living, and learning and understanding HIV transmission," said researcher and infectious disease specialist Audrey French.

She added, "Traditional cohort studies have people come in and give a lot of personal time. They require a lot of money and time to understand what's going on with them. The people who wrote this are interested … in establishing a cohort with very limited face-to-face interaction, so you can understand behavior without it costing a lot. The purpose is not only to understand behaviors but the the milieu of risk for these people, to design interventions that would also be cost-effective and use technology."

Funders of "Keeping It Lite" include the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Other researchers include Sybil Hosek, a clinical psychologist and HIV researcher at CCHS, and Pedro Serrano from the CORE Center's Adolescent and Young Adult Research Group.

Researchers will attempt to recruit subjects via dating apps such as Grindr or Tinder as well as apps such as Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat for younger subjects, French added.

Potential subjects "clink on a link, get to a consent form, click through a survey of their behaviors, and then, if they complete the survey, we send them an HIV testing kit and they send it back. We'll keep sending the kits over time. We're not really intervening a lot, except for the test kits and information about PrEP and where they can get it," she said.

French noted that the project was not intended as "an intense prevention" but, rather, "it's more of a study, although I do believe we will be doing some good for the participants, with the testing and access to information."

Participants will be sent surveys first quarterly, then every six months. Those who might seroconvert during their participation will be linked to care and will be asked to take part in both an analysis of their online social networks and a phylogenetic analysis. Researchers are seeking about 3,000 subjects, French said.

"Our current entry criteria are one of three things," she noted. "Those are having anal intercourse with a man who is HIV-infected; having had an STI in the last six months; or having a sexual partner who has HIV. For younger people, we are going to change the criteria, so that if they had had oral sex with a man, they would also qualify. One of our main goals is to understand the evolution of behavior for very young people—young people who are experimenting but haven't quite gotten to riskier sex."

According to French, the incentive for the enrollment survey, which is slightly longer, and the initial HIV test is $50. For later surveys and testing, the incentive is $30.

Information on the study is available at 708-683-9095, lite@cookcountyhhs.org or ayaresearch.org/lite .


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