Digital outreach efforts delivered via text messages, interactive games, chat rooms, and social networks may be an effective way to prevent the spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), according to a recent study.
Researchers from Columbia University Medical Center found that eHealth interventions are associated with reductions in risky sexual behaviors and increases in HIV testing among men who have sex with men.
Despite decades of outreach and education efforts that have stabilized human immunodeficiency (HIV) infection rates in the United States, the pace of new infections among men who have sex with men has been steadily increasing, particularly among young adults and racial and ethnic minorities.
“This is a population that is very used to technology, and there is built-in privacy and immediacy with digital communication that may be especially appealing to men who aren’t comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation or their HIV status in a face-to-face encounter,” said Rebecca Schnall, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at Columbia Nursing. “If we want to reduce HIV infection rates, particularly among younger men, we need to explore the use of technology to meet them where they live – online and on their phones.”
For the study, researchers conducted a systematic literature review to determine the effectiveness of eHealth interventions for HIV prevention among men who have sex with men. Included studies had to be focused exclusively on eHealth, limited to HIV prevention and testing rather than treatment, targeted only to adult men who have sex with men, written in English, designed as experimental or randomized controlled trials, and published between January 2000 and April.
Researchers found that one interactive website, Sexpulse, designed by health professionals and computer scientists to target men who seek sexual partners online, successfully reduced high-risk sexual behaviors. Another site, Keep It Up! (KIU), used video games to help reduce rates of unprotected anal sex. A third initiative, a downloadable video game, helped mitigate shame felt by some young men who have sex with men, though the reduction in risky sexual behavior wasn’t statistically significant.
Researchers found that Chat rooms may also help prevent HIV. When a sexual health expert entered a popular chat room to regularly post information about HIV testing and respond to instant messages seeking information on HIV, self-reported HIV testing among participants in the chat room significantly increased.
“Taken together, the findings from all of these relatively small studies demonstrate the enormous potential of eHealth as a tool to prevent HIV,” Schnall said. “What we now have is a road map to follow for larger, longer trials that may definitely confirm the effectiveness of eHealth in fighting the spread of HIV.”