New research conducted at UCLA suggests social media sites such as Facebook can be an effective tool in the fight against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Scientists recruited more than 100 African American and Latino men who have sex with men through ads on Facebook, MySpace, Craigslist and at Los Angeles area bars, gyms and community organizations. The participants were 31 years old, on average. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, these groups have higher rates of HIV infections than the general population.
Participants were randomly assigned on Facebook to either a general health group or a secret HIV-prevention group - one that could not be accessed or searched for by non-group members.
The researchers found that participants in the HIV-prevention group freely discussed HIV-related topics such as prevention, testing, knowledge, stigma and advocacy. Specifically, those over the age of 31 were more likely to discuss prevention, testing, stigma and advocacy topics. Subjects who were younger than 31 were more interested in HIV knowledge-related discussions.
In addition, they found that participants who posted about prevention and testing were more than 10 times as likely to request an HIV test, compared to those who did not discuss those topics.
"Participants frequently and willingly used social networking groups to initiate HIV-related conversations, and HIV/STD prevention-related conversations were associated with increased requests for HIV tests," the researchers wrote. "As social networking usage continues to grow among at-risk populations, it becomes important to understand how to use these innovative and engaging social technologies for population-focused STD prevention."
The HHS reports that more than one million people are living with HIV in the U.S. However, one in five is unaware of their infection.
In 2012, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a new recommendation that everyone between the ages 15 to 65 should be tested for the virus that causes AIDS. The influential government panel previously recommended testing only for at-risk individuals.
Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that HIV screening be a part of routine clinical care for all patients aged 13-64. In other words, officials state that people should have an HIV test during routine medical check-ups.
However, high-risk individuals, such as those who have a history of STDs or those who have had unprotected sex with multiple partners or a partner who did not know their own HIV status, should have an HIV test at least once every year. The HHS suggests that people discuss how often they should be tested, based on their specific risk factors with their healthcare providers.