HIV study targets Hispanic youth with social media

USF researchers are looking for Hispanic youths between the ages of 13 and 24 to participate in a study that aims to raise awareness of HIV.

The study, which began this month, is recruiting the youth to be tested for HIV. To find them, USF Department of Pediatrics researchers are employing all forms of social media – including online dating profiles that advertise the tests.

Peter Gamache, a research and evaluations specialist at USF and coordinator of the study, said the efforts are being funded by the National Institute of Health and are innovative in their peer-to-peer outreach approach.

“Many outreach efforts we’ve seen have been very passive in generating awareness,” he said. “We’re using social media in ways that are much more direct. We’re basically asking them to talk to four friends or sexual partners, because they’re the ones that are most knowledgeable about what’s going on and unprotected exposures.”

Free and confidential HIV testing is provided to all participants, who receive a $35 gift card as an incentive. Participants can receive up to $60 in gift cards – $15 for each individual they recruit for the study.

Gamache said participants are also being targeted at clubs, bathhouses and sex shops – places where “there is already active dialogue about sex.” As the largest growing population in the U.S., he said Hispanics were an ideal target population for the study.

“With the rising population, more people are having sex and are reproducing more often,” Gamache said. “HIV is increasing with the increase in population. There are also many cultural things about stigma within the Hispanic population that we’re addressing.”

Katherine Pineda, a research assistant for the study who manages many of the social media pages, said she first joined the project because of her interest in the social stigma attached to HIV in Hispanic communities.

“I think this study will have a huge social impact,” she said. “Hopefully, we can strive to put more attention on how imperative it is to bring more attention to this issue, not just for Latinos, but for everybody. It’s not a thing of the past that only affected gay men in the ’80s, it affects everybody.”

Gamache said negative attitudes toward HIV often prevent people from getting tested and lead to the further spread of the disease.

“There’s a fear of association with marginalized populations historically associated (with HIV),” he said. “For people who are already positive, there’s a stigma of disclosing it to partners for fear of (being rejected.)”

Using social media cuts through these barriers.

“HIV is a social disease,” Gamache said. “It definitely requires a social response if we’re ever going to find a solution. It does take a community approach to reduce HIV.”

More information about testing is available at the studies’ Facebook page, “Hablemos del VIH: Let’s Talk about HIV.”