Researchers from Cook County Health (CCH) are using social media to try to get a better understanding of what factors tend to predict who gets infected with HIV, in order to potentially develop new HIV prevention strategies.

Using ads and other social media on sites such as Facebook, Tinder and Grindr, researchers are seeking to enroll participants for the study who are either young men who have sex with men (MSM) or transgender women—two groups that have high HIV rates.

Participants will be offered access to regular HIV testing and also, with their permission, be asked questions about their health behaviors, sociodemographic characteristics and socioecological influences.  The goal is to identify individual and community level factors that may enhance HIV risk and see what techniques are most effective at reaching young men who have sex with men and transgender women.

The researchers, led by Drs. Audrey French and Sybil Hosek, will also be monitoring how often HIV-negative participants use a drug called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and whether they’ve had any difficulty getting access to this drug.  If taken regularly, the FDA-approved PrEP can drastically reduce the risk of HIV transmission.

“We are looking for people who are at risk for HIV and are already testing for HIV or want to begin testing more regularly. By participating in our longitudinal cohort study, they will be able to take part in research that will help us learn more about HIV prevention and transmission amongst young people,” said Dr. French, Professor of Infectious Diseases at CCH’ Stroger Hospital. “For those who can’t get access to the HIV prevention techniques that we already know work, we can also assist with that.”

Dr. Hosek, of the Stroger Department of Psychiatry and the Ruth M Rothstein CORE Center, added that the power of social media in this study is that “it allows a small research team to reach a much broader audience, particularly an audience that communicates online or would not otherwise be reached by the typical street- or venue-based HIV prevention outreach models.”

Fellow researchers in the study, known as “Keeping it Lite: Exploring HIV Risk in Vulnerable Youth With Limited Interaction,” include Pedro Serrano from the CORE Center’s Adolescent and Young Adult Research group; Nanette Benbow and Christina Sage Hayford from the Third Coast Center for AIDS Research at Northwestern University; Dr. John Schneider from the University of Chicago; and Dr. Anna Hotton from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The $676,000 study is being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.