Spike in HIV: Testing Climbs Because of Face-to-Face Social Networking

One of the biggest concerns in the battle against the spread of HIV is not being aware that one is infected. This is the leading reason for HIV’s continuing spread in developed countries, like the United States of America. In fact, as many as one in five people who are infected with HIV are asymptomatic and completely unaware of the infection. Because of this, they usually continue in the high-risk activities that exposed them to HIV in the first place (i.e. men who have sex with men, sharing drug utensils, etc). Traditional counseling, training, and referral (CTR), are the current mainstream programs designed to spread awareness of HIV and prompt people to get tested. However, these usually yield minimal results (less than one percent of those tested in this manner are shown to be HIV positive). A new form of face-to-face social networking, however, has resulted in a spike in HIV among high-risk individuals. That is, more HIV infected individuals have been found, not that HIV has actually increased in the populations at the highest risk of contracting the disease. What has been behind this success in finding HIV-positive individuals?

Social network strategies (SNS) programs, focusing on high-risk environments that encourage people to refer their friends and acquaintances (with a small monetary reward for each tested referral), has yielded a roughly 2.5 percent increase in positive tests. These programs proactively find high-risk environments and the people within them, as opposed to the CTR programs, which passively foster testing. SNS programs actively prompts those with HIV-positive and unaffected alike to recruit others they know to be involved in the various high-risk activities commonly associated with HIV infection. Of course, some worry about the cost of rewarding individuals for ever reference that gets tested. Indeed, there has been a minimal amount of “abuse” of gaining a monetary reward for each tested referral (roughly $10-20 per tested referral). However, others feel that the spike in HIV found among high-risk people is worth this price, and that it will be more cost effective overall. For example, a study of SNS programs and testing methods illustrates that the 30th or 40th person referred for testing through SNS had just as high (if not a higher) probability of being HIV positive, as did the first five or ten people referred in this manner. Certainly, more people being aware of being HIV positive, and at an earlier stage of the infection, means more are able to seek earlier treatment. Indeed, it is very important for HIV infected patients to get onto the life-saving anti-retroviral regimen as early as possible. Doing so will suppress the virus and prevent the progression to AIDS.