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Online outreach scheme effective for men with HIV

Update: October, 02/2013 - 09:05
The AIDS Committee of HCM City said the model was effective between July 2012 and June 2013. Roughly 5,500 MSM were accessed through the internet and more than 6,000 MSM were reached with traditional methods.— File Photo

by Van Dat

HCM CITY (VNS)— The use of the internet as a tool for early detection of HIV cases among men who have sex with men (MSM) has proven to be effective, particularly in light of budget cuts for HIV/AIDS prevention in HCM City.

Satisfactory results were announced yesterday during a meeting to evaluate the projects with officials from the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), one year after the programme was piloted with eight peer educators knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS and internet use.

According to Nguyen Thi Hue, head of the Harm Reduction Department under the HCM City AIDS Committee, the project will be expanded to other provinces and cities.

The city, which has widespread internet use, has more than 24,000 MSM aged between 15 and 49.

Recent surveys show that using internet use to seek partners has become popular among the city's youth.

The AIDS Committee of HCM City said the model was effective between July 2012 and June 2013. Roughly 5,500 MSM were accessed through the internet and more than 6,000 MSM were reached with traditional methods.

However, in order to achieve good results, the committee needs 58 peer educators for traditional methods, while it needs only eight people for online access.

The budget for traditional outreach last year was reported at more than VND3.2 billion while the budget for internet access was VND215 million.

Le Son, group leader of MSMs online in HCM City, who has experienced as a group leader, said outreach through the internet had been a new experience for him.

In the past, he would go online and chat with friends but he did not think of using internet to access clients.

During the year of the pilot programme, Son said that he and his group faced many challenges but they were able to chat with five clients at the same time on the internet.

Apart from computers, they also used smartphones to access people considered to be part of the highest at-risk population.

The city had 450 peer educators for at-risk members of the MSM community, but the number has fallen to 100.

In the future, there will be only MSM 70 peer educators who will receive salaries from the State budget, Hue said, adding that the number of online peer educators will be maintained at eight, Hue told Viet Nam News.

Marta Ackers, associate director of the US's PEPFAR programme office in HCM City, said the project had been promising in HCM City, and neighbouring countries were also using this method.

Community outreach is one of the most important elements of HIV prevention strategies targeting the people most at risk.

Ackers recalled the situation in 1993 when HIV began to spread. HCM City implemented a harm-reduction programme, by piloting a needle-syringe programme for injection-drug users (IDUs) and condom use programme for and female sex workers (FSWs) through peer-outreach workers.

The peer outreach worker network now is used in all of HCM City's districts to serve the highest at-risk population, including IDUs and FSWs, by delivering free needle syringes and condoms.

Now, while transmission is targeted on the MSM community, HIV prevention methods should be changed.

Currently, only 3 per cent of the 20,000 to 25,000 most at-risk population of MSMs in HCM City have been reached via traditional outreach.

HIV prevalence among MSMs in the city increased from 5.4 per cent in 2006 to 15 per cent in 2009, she said, adding that the project aimed to increase outreach and coverage of HIV service utility among MSMs.

In a few years, the model will be expanded to other provinces and cities.

The peer educators said they would do the job even without pay.

Each MSM online peer educator receives VND500,000 each month.

According to a social worker who works at the Mekong Delta's An Giang Province's AIDS Prevention Centre, the province has only six MSM peer educators who can meet with their clients for consultations.

According to the official, the rate of internet usage in the province is high and can be accessed in rural areas as well.

The problem now is finding peer educators who are knowledgeable about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

"Discrimination is still high in the province, so not many gay people are ready to come out and become peer educators. It is more challenging there to seek online peer educators," he added. — VNS

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