[This post was sent in by Lisa Hightow-Weidman, MD, MPH, who is assistant professor of medicine at UNC ]
The HIV epidemic in the Southeastern U.S. is concentrated among black men and women and men who have sex with men (MSM). Research—including our own—indicates that MSM use the Internet to meet sex partners and engage in high-risk behaviors more often than other groups.
With the Internet clearly emerging as an important meeting place for MSM, it offers considerable potential as a medium for addressing sexual risk behaviors. My colleagues Peter Leone and Cindy Gay and I have just been awarded a grant from the CDC to study Internet-based partner notification and education methods to stop the spread of HIV in North Carolina. This study targets people with acute HIV infection, or AHI. AHI is the period after infection but before antibodies can be detected. During this short window of time—around 12 weeks—the virus replicates rapidly and is highly transmittable.
Traditionally we have focused HIV educational efforts at physical venues such as bars and clubs. The Internet opens up a whole new strategy for reaching men who are engaging in high-risk activities but might not be accessed by traditional means. Several studies confirm that both white and black MSM are receptive to Internet-based data collection and interventions, including chat discussions, individual outreach, educational services and message board forums. Using the Internet to notify people in STI outbreaks has proven to be effective — MSM are open to both sending and receiving partner notifications using the Internet. The web-based partner notification service inspot.org, which has received a bit of media attention over the past couple of years, is one successful model.
Earlier HIV diagnosis and detection of acute HIV infection (AHI) are both critical to slowing or stopping the spread of HIV. We believe that by enhancing traditional partner tracing with a novel Internet intervention using email and text messaging among those newly infected, we can increase notification, screening and potentially treatment of infected partners.
- Lisa H-W