August 3, 2012
Traditional HIV prevention outreach at gay bars and information in print media are losing their relevance in a world of social media and online meet-up sites, according to University of Minnesota (UM) researchers.
Four years ago, the team created a sexually explicit, interactive website, Sexpulse, to educate men who have sex with men (MSM) about HIV. Despite protests from social conservatives, the project continued, and the researchers presented their results at the 19th International AIDS Conference.
Men who seek other men online have twice as many sex partners and more unprotected sex than MSM who stick to the physical world, the team reported. Online meet-up services are available 24/7, and mobile phone apps can make that service available in any location.
"The challenge in online HIV prevention is designing something that's engaging and interesting," said Simon Rosser, lead researcher and director of the university's HIV/STI Intervention and Prevention Studies Program. "If no one comes to your programs, it's a problem." Less than half of about 2,700 MSM surveyed had ever attended an offline HIV seminar.
AIDS websites have to compete with other websites, or MSM audiences will not visit them. The researchers asked what would help attract them, and a majority of MSM said explicit images.
Locally, the Minnesota AIDS Project's "Positive Link" is an online and offline program with monthly educational and social events. A sense of community has driven its success, and it may be that a communal element is especially important for people who are already geographically isolated, said Bill Tiedemann, MAP's executive director.