Leveraging the geolocation-based functions of social media platforms could be useful in promoting HIV testing campaigns among men who have sex with men (MSM), a new report in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC’s) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
The report details findings from a 4-year period in Beijing, China, during which Blued, a media company that operates an online dating app among MSM, and CDC’s China HIV program assessed trends in use of HIV testing services among MSM.
Although the overall prevalence of HIV in China is low (0.06%), it is substantially higher among MSM (8.0%) and stigmatization of same-sex attraction in China creates barriers to HIV prevention and treatment.
Since 2013 Blued has operated 6 HIV testing centers in Beijing, which are designed to provide HIV testing in an MSM-friendly environment. In 2015, the company launched the HIV testing campaign combining push-notifications and geolocation capabilities.
In order to assess uptake in testing services, representatives from the social media platform at CDC’s China HIV Program examined data from the Blued-operated testing centers from 2 years prior to the campaign launch in 2015 through December 31, 2017.
The campaign began with 1 mass-message delivered through the private messaging functionality, which was followed by monthly electronic banner promotions of HIV testing on the platform’s launch screen.
Following the launch in March 2015, HIV testing volume increased sharply: 145 HIV tests were reported during March, marking a 77% increase over the 82 tests reported during January and February of the same year. In total, 3363 tests were conducted in 2015, a greater than 3-fold increase over the 836 tests conducted during 2013 and a nearly 7-fold increase over the 425 tests conducted during 2014.
In July 2016, an HIV testing appointment platform was embedded in the app, which allowed users to schedule testing at a nearby testing site online.
Following this implementation, the number of HIV tests continued to increase to 6330 in 2016 and 7315 in 2017, representing 10 times (2016) and 12 times (2017) the average number of annual tests received during 2013-2014. Overall, 15,932 MSM had 17,008 cumulative HIV test results recorded at one of the 6 sites during 2015-2017.
According to the report, among the MSM tested 14,050 (88.2%) were aged ≤35 years (median age = 27 years [interquartile range = 24–31 years]), and 2693 (16.9%) were college students. Overall, 723 (4.5%) of the individuals who obtained HIV testing at Blued sites during 2015-2017 had results positive for HIV.
Analyses indicated that positive tests were likely to occur in individuals who were older than 35 years, not currently enrolled in college, and among first-time testers. The investigators wrote, “The HIV-positivity rate was higher among participants aged >35 years (7.0%) than among those aged ≤35 years (4.2%) (p<0.001), among those who reported that they were not college students (5.0%) than among college students (2.2%) (p<0.001), and among those who were first-time testers (5.1%) than among repeat testers (4.1%) (p = 0.001).”
The report also indicated that 44.8% of participants had never had an HIV test prior to the campaign and 68% of participants scheduled their test through the link embedded in the campaign.
“Prioritizing the strengthening of technical assistance through partnerships with organizations actively engaging with the target population might expand the scope and reach of geosocial networking applications and facilitate understanding of users’ health behaviors, HIV testing history, and other factors that affect HIV acquisition,” the investigators wrote, concluding that further research is needed to understand the long-term benefits of this approach and whether it retains an impact after repeated use.
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