Public health workers are always looking for new ways to get in touch with the community, and the huge popularity of websites such as Facebook and Twitter offer yet another outlet for disseminating important information about disease and health care. Social networks have already proved beneficial to patients suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes, as well as from mental health conditions – in all of these instances, social media offers the chance for patients and doctors to communicate in a new way, and for patients to connect with one another and offer advice and support.
However, public health workers in the field of HIV and AIDS have been far more cautious in their use of social media; fearing that HIV patients or those most at risk of contracting HIV might be scared off by the idea of identifying themselves on a networking site such as Facebook. But that’s all changing. New research into ongoing public health campaigns has shown that, finally, health workers are using social media as a tool of communication, support and prevention for HIV.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, a recent research project gathered a group of peer leaders and gave these leaders information on HIV and how the disease spreads. Following this, the leaders were asked to use Facebook to communicate with men who had participated in an earlier study and identified themselves as being part of an HIV at-risk group. Through general and more personal chats and messaging, the peer leaders offered information about the spread of HIV, and eventually asked their chat partners if they would like to receive an HIV home test kit. Forty-four percent of the chat partners agreed to the home test kit, whereas just 20 percent of men in the control group (that is, men who had participated in the earlier study but were not in Facebook communication with peer leaders) wanted to take the home test.
This UCLA study seems to show that through social media, public health workers can more efficiently reach out to HIV at-risk communities. Because determining one’s HIV status is key to early treatment and to slowing the spread of the disease, the University’s research into using social media to encourage at-home HIV testing may prove essential to future HIV health campaigns. Also promising in the UCLA study was the fact that of all participants contacted by peer leaders, 95 percent voluntarily engaged in communication with the leaders; thus demonstrating that health publicity efforts on Facebook and other social media do have a high chance of success.
The topic of HIV and social networks was also discussed at the AIDS 2012 conference. In a show of support for greater use of social media in the fight against HIV, more than 200 individuals came together to recite a New Media Declaration. Created as a tool to show health workers, administrators and politicians that technology and social networking must play a bigger role in HIV treatment and prevention, the Declaration reads as thus: “We call upon the HIV Community to declare that new media and emerging technologies are critical to help us connect, create, listen, learn and engage as we move towards an AIDS-free generation.”
At the AIDS 2012 conference, attendees also discussed the possibilities of using social media to connect and energize volunteers. In Philadelphia, the HIV testing and treatment program Do One Thing has reported success using social marketing to engage with the community, as well as to get volunteers talking and sharing their work online. When volunteers use social media, pictures and information about past and upcoming events can be publicized in a fun way, thus reducing the stigma surrounding HIV and HIV testing, according to Do One Thing.
The reason all of these organizations are so interested in using social media to encourage HIV testing is that early antiretroviral treatment can help a patient maintain a healthy immune system by slowing down the virus. Being aware of one’s HIV status is also an important step in assuring that the infection is not unknowingly passed on to another sexual partner. Unfortunately, due to stigma or simply a lack of information, many people at-risk of contracting HIV do not get regularly tested for the disease. But, perhaps with more action over social media, more HIV testing will occur.
At the moment, HIV programs are mostly concentrating their social media efforts on Facebook, but in the future it’s likely that these online efforts could extend to other sites as well – Twitter, Google+, YouTube and so on. Hopefully, with wider communication and publicity, the remaining stigma associated with HIV and AIDS will disappear, and more people at-risk of contracting the disease will have a safe place to ask questions, receive support, get the medical information they need, and offer their advice and assistance to others as well.