In Battle Against H.I.V., Using Facebook and Twitter

Published: July 2, 2013

The online banter was too steamy to ignore.

Gregory Johnson, a soft-spoken young man using the screen name “Adonis,” talked up sex to several hundred of his closest Facebook friends this spring. Once he had their attention, he sent a racy snapshot of two square wrappers tucked into his underwear along with a plea: Why not use a condom?
 
It was only a matter of time before the social media that keeps friends and family connected and amused was pressed into public service. Just as antismoking ads have come to saturate the airwaves, a flurry of personalized messages promoting H.I.V. testing and protected sex have popped up on thousands of smartphones, iPads and laptops in recent months.

The online campaign is the work of an unusual health project in the Bronx, which seeks to harness social media to educate gay and bisexual men about the risks of contracting H.I.V. and AIDS. The project, called “theSEXword,” recruited seven men and one woman who is transgender to build an online forum for sharing safe-sex messages with people who would never bother to pick up a brochure. It was financed with $25,000 from the Center for AIDS Research, a joint program of Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
 
“It’s one on one; it’s directly to them,” said Kamari Perkins, 22, one of the eight cyber messengers. “They’re more receptive to someone they know than someone they don’t.”

In New York City, there were 3,404 newly diagnosed cases of H.I.V. in 2011, of which Brooklyn had the highest number (983), followed by Manhattan (866) and the Bronx (662), according to city health statistics. In total, 51 percent of all newly diagnosed cases were among men who reported having sex with men.

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