Outreach on social media may help encourage men at high risk for HIV infection to get themselves tested, a new study from the U.K. suggests.
When researchers advertised home sampling kits to gay and bisexual men through social media and apps, nearly 6,000 men returned saliva or blood sampling kits they requested from the online service. Eighty-two of them were newly diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
Writing in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, the researchers estimate that about one of every eight gay and bisexual men in the U.K. is HIV-positive, but about 16 percent of those men aren't diagnosed.
"The key to HIV prevention and control of the epidemic is to test as early as possible and manage and treat," said lead author Dr. Emilie Elliot, of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London. "The more opportunities there are for that, the more you reduce barriers and the more you're likely to reduce the weight of undiagnosed HIV."
She and her colleagues write that community HIV testing programs lack convenience, time and anonymity. Those barriers could be overcome by allowing people to collect their own saliva or blood at home. Offering home sampling to gay and bisexual men through social media and apps is one approach.
The program evaluated in the new study began in November 2011 and is known as Dean Street at Home (DS@H). Men who have sex with men were invited to order a home sampling kit through messages or banners on Gaydar, Facebook, Grindr and Recon.
Over a two-year period, starting in January 2012, more than 17,000 men completed a basic HIV risk assessment that asked about condom use, last HIV test and sexual history. They received feedback on their HIV risk and were offered a home sampling kit to collect saliva or - starting in August 2013 - blood from a finger prick.
More than a third of the men had not previously been tested for HIV and nearly half were at risk for the infection.
Ultimately, 10,323 requested a sampling kit, and 5,696 returned it. Overall, 121 people's kits tested positive for HIV, and 82 were confirmed as new infections. People were told of their results by mail or by phone.
The program may be reaching men who would not otherwise be tested, because those diagnosed through DS@H tended to be older than those diagnosed at the researcher's London clinic, Elliot said.
"We're picking up new cases and testing people who wouldn't otherwise test and getting them into care," she told Reuters Health.
The main limitation of the study is that the HIV risk of those who didn't return their sampling kits remains unknown.
Elliot said the program is still available. (www.deanstreetathome.com)
In the U.K., the National Health Service advises men who have sex with men to have an HIV test "at least once a year, or every three months if they're having unprotected sex with new or casual partners."