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Local health groups use social media as new tactic against HIV

Posted by  October 24, 2013 12:33 PM

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Jessica C. Mendoza/Globe Correspondent

Jon Vincent, director of prevention, education and screening for Fenway Health.

“I’m your friendly neighborhood counselor,” says the plain white print at the bottom of the screen. “If I’m online, it means you can get a free, rapid HIV test right away.”

The ad, which features two clean-cut, smiling men standing side-by-side, is one of a variety of similar placements on location-based apps geared to gay and bisexual men. Beneath the message are a local phone number and an invitation to the user to “drop me a line.”

Such is the new face of the long, ongoing campaign to prevent HIV: Direct, discreet, and digital.

“Back in the late ‘90s, it was about condom distribution, clean needles and education,” said Jon Vincent, director of prevention, education and screening for Fenway Health, the nonprofit behind four local clinics that provide HIV and AIDS testing, treatment and other services.

Today, Vincent said, advertisements on social media sites like Facebook and Craigslist, and on location-based apps like Grindr and SCRUFF, are becoming crucial ways to get through to high-risk individuals and groups.

The new approach is less all-purpose and more targeted, he said: The goal is to find people who are HIV-positive but don’t know it, and then urge them to get treatment.

“We want nothing more than to put ourselves out of business,” said Keith Orr, director of gay men’s prevention services for the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts (AAC), which has partnered with Fenway Health to combat HIV.

The AAC, too, has turned to the Internet to reel-in people for testing and treatment, said Orr.

In addition to endorsing online ads as useful tools to spread the word, Orr credited the user review website, Yelp. He said that Yelp users are more inclined to get tested after they’ve read others’ positive experiences online.

He said that there are “absolutely” people who show up at the AAC’s clinic in the South End who say that they came because they saw good reviews online.

Vincent said that of the roughly 10,000 people a year who get tested through Fenway Health, about 60 percent say they heard about it through online referrals.

But despite growing success in reaching their communities, both Vincent and Orr acknowledge that the fight is far from over. A disproportionate number of persons living with HIV are young black or Latino men who have sex with men, and who live in less affluent neighborhoods, said Vincent. Because of the progress of the gay rights’ movement in the last decade, he said, these men have “integrated into the community.”

“It’s great -- we achieved our goal,” he said of integration. But, he added, gay men becoming part of the city’s landscape, instead of clustered in small communities, has made it more difficult to get the word out about testing and treatment.

Moreover, the disease is most common among young adults who were not yet born or are too young to remember when an HIV diagnosis meant a death sentence, and don’t realize how serious it is when left untreated, said Vincent.

Social media becomes a critical way of reaching out to these high-risk communities.

“Gay men (today) meet on the Internet,” he said.

Vincent said that Massachusetts has made significant progress in addressing HIV, reducing the rate of new infections by 50 percent in the last ten years. Still, the problem persists. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the number of people living with HIV in Massachusetts climbed to 17,502 in 2011, compared to 7,368 in 2001. The nationwide figure has similarly escalated -- from 161,976 to 870,096 in the same time period.

In addition, said Orr, an estimated 20 percent of people living with HIV in Massachusetts “are unaware of their status,” which makes them more likely to transmit the disease to others – and makes testing critical.

Both Fenway Health and the AIDS Action Committee are committed to following up their social media outreach with personal attention to those diagnosed or living with the disease. Orr said that AAC members take time to talk privately with walk-ins who respond to ads online. Many of those who come in, said Orr, feel uncertain and need the support of someone with “cultural compatibility.”

Vincent, meanwhile, described Fenway Health’s new “clinic-in-a-box,” which contains equipment for testing and treating everything from HIV to hepatitis. He said the organization intends to send counselors and nurses in pairs with these “go-boxes” out into the community, as a way of reaching those who can’t benefit from online advertisements.

Vincent, who has worked in HIV/AIDS services for 16 years, said his ultimate aim is to get as close as possible to eradicating the disease.

“If everyone who had HIV got treated,” he said, “the math says it’s possible that we could cripple (this) in Massachusetts. We could show (the world) what it’s like that HIV is rare in an urban community.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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