In an era when we know so much more about preventing the spread of HIV, researchers strive to figure out why it still keeps spreading.
Over the next four months, two professors at Hunter College in New York City will be recruiting 8,000 sexually active, HIV-negative gay and bisexual men online from across the United States (including Puerto Rico). You may notice their pitches and pop-up ads sprinkled across social media platforms and websites.
The goal will be to identify the predictors of HIV seroconversion in a vulnerable population: MSMs — men who have sex with men.
“We want all recruitment efforts to be focused online because that way we know the entire sample has access in common, and that commonality ensures they will be able to participate in the project,” says Dr. Jeffrey T. Parsons, Distinguished Professor and Director at Hunter’s Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training (CHEST).
Funded by a $2.9 million grant from the National Institute on Allergies and Infectious Diseases and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the study is called UNITE, which stands for Understanding New Infections Through Targeted Epidemiology. The study will track why certain populations — young MSMs and MSMs of color — continue to show increasing HIV rates.
Parsons, who is leading the research with Dr. Jonathon Rendina, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of Quantitative Methods at CHEST, says surveying participants from a distance rather than face-to-face will help to prevent behavior that influences the results.
The study will target men in both urban and rural areas with a higher HIV-positive population. As they determine which applicants are eligible to participate based on initial survey responses, researchers will forward candidates an HIV testing kit and further surveys designed to examine experiences on a variety of topics, including stress, discrimination, depression and substance abuse.
“One of the most challenging things will be to continue to retain them for the one year follow-up,” Parsons cautions. At that point, researchers will deliver a second HIV testing kit and evaluate the results.
However if past is prologue, most participants will remain responsive. Their two previous surveys of 1,000 men across the country held 90% retention rates. “We’re hoping to do better than that,” he says, adding that a driving factor in continued engagement is that when you survey gay men about HIV and sexual health issues, they tend to be genuinely interested in what other people are saying and doing.
The data will provide a portrait of predictors that are important to understanding who seroconverts and who doesn’t. In the past, the researchers acknowledge, study groups were not large enough to pin down what factors have been driving the epidemic. “By doing a project this large, on this scale with this many people, we will have a better opportunity to narrow down some of the predictors that are resulting in men acquiring HIV,” Parsons says.
After the first phase determines the factors most likely associated with seroconversion, researchers will begin a second phase aimed at identifying who is at highest risk, and tracking those individuals for another two years.
“As a member of the community and having done this work for 20 years, this is my passion,” Parsons says in summary. “For me it’s about trying to make a difference, trying to use my skills and abilities as a psychologist to have an impact on the epidemic.”
Learn more about UNITE and other research at chestnyc.org.
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Last modified: September 27, 2017