By Lee Storrow
There have been several overarching messages from this year’s International AIDS Conference: Use new technologies, and don’t be afraid to get explicit when talking about sex.
Using digital technologies to move the needle on fighting AIDS was the main emphasis of Duke researcher Sara LeGrand’s session From online to IRL: Social media, sex apps and surfing to enhance cascades.
LeGrand, an assistant research professor of global health at Duke Global Health Institute, discussed P3 (Prepared, Protected, emPowered), an app she and other researchers have been testing to increase Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) adherence among young men who have sex with men and young trans women.
PrEP is a daily pill that has been shown to prevent HIV transmission, when taken consistently.[sponsor]
At this point, LeGrand and her colleagues are just testing the usability and receiving feedback from participants before testing how well the app does to keep people taking their PrEP medications every day. Nine out of 10 users found the app highly acceptable and appreciated the daily medication trackers and ability to connect directly with an adherence counselor, LeGrand found.
Other presenters all shared information on digital campaigns from their countries to increase access to PrEP.
One campaign launched in the Philippines openly and frankly discussed sex, something taboo in that strongly Catholic country.
Researcher Lord-Art Lomarda presented about the digital Manila-based HIV prevention campaign designed to increase testing rates among young gay and bi-sexual Filipino men. The effort primarily focused on ads on online gay dating and hookup sites, but also included branded t-shirts and targeted community events. The goal: to drive young gay and bi-sexual men to get tested at eight clinics across the city.
Despite the campaign’s jarring title, Suck, F*#k, Test, Repeat, or perhaps in part because of it, the campaign was wildly successful. During the course of the campaign, 7,026 young gay or bi-sexual men got tested and 1,343 of those individuals were HIV positive. The clinics reported a 62 percent increase in testing from the same time period the year before.
The pressing need to increase testing and the number of people taking PrEP isn’t a hypothetical for North Carolinians. Earlier this year, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners allocated $250,000 to promote the drug through public education and subsidize the cost for low-income individuals in the county.
With 30.4 new infections per 100,000 people, Mecklenburg has one of the highest rates of HIV not just in North Carolina, but the entire United States. Most of those infections are in men in their 20s, and African Americans comprise 80 percent of the new cases.
Lomarda made the point that if public health officials are serious about reaching communities with the highest rates of HIV, they must be explicit and direct and go where young gay and bisexual men are.
“Manila has some of the highest rates of HIV in Asia,” he said. “What we were doing before wasn’t working. To reach the community, we had to explicitly and directly talk about sex.”
Lomarda reported that the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country and has a culture which looks askance on gay and bisexual relations.
Get to the point
Using new technology to reach young people was reinforced in abstracts from other North Carolina researchers at the conference.
On Tuesday, UNC associate professor Lisa Hightow-Weidman presented her poster Innovative, technology-driven methodologies to collect qualitative data among youth on new technologies to collect data from young men who have sex with men. Hightow-Weidman’s academic career has focused on using internet and other technologies for HIV prevention interventions, her poster was a summary of four current projects she and other researchers are working on.
When asked the summary of her current research, and its impact to community groups in North Carolina, she was blunt and to the point.
“Regardless of your intervention, embrace new technology,” she said. “At least for youth, you are NOT reaching them if you are not using technology.”