HIV prevention app shows promise in Romania

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A mobile app could improve the lives of LGBTQ people who lack access to HIV prevention and education, say researchers.

Corina Lelutiu-Weinberger, assistant professor at the Rutgers University School of Nursing, recently introduced the first mobile program aimed at improving the sexual, behavioral, and mental health of gay and bisexual men in Romania—a country where HIV is on the rise among this group.

Homophobia, a lack of appropriate healthcare, and a fear among gay men of confiding in healthcare workers largely drive that increase. A recent study found that, among 28 European countries, Romania has the highest degree of LGBTQ individuals who hide their sexual orientation—a statistic that is indicative of Romania’s low support for LGBTQ rights.

To help men address their HIV risk, eight counseling sessions took place through the chat feature of the study app. Pre- and post-session surveys identified whether LGBTQ people changed their HIV risk behavior following counseling. Compared to their pre-intervention responses, participants reported significantly increased awareness and knowledge of HIV; increased rates of HIV testing; decreased rates of heavy alcohol use; and decreased anxiety and depression. According to the post-intervention surveys, the mobile counseling program was well received among the group.

“We found that participants not only reported improved behaviors, but they also found the program format to be beneficial, with a majority of the participants recommending a 10-week program rather than eight,” says Lelutiu-Weinberger. “Participants found the platform easy to use and some participants cited ‘a new-found sense of self-worth and openness toward future counseling.'”

Lelutiu-Weinberger adds that for many participants, this was their first outlet for exploring their gay and bisexual identities. She suggests this first step in addressing sexual behavior and mental health in Romanian gay and bisexual men lays the groundwork for larger studies to further improve the impact of the program.

“Such findings are also likely applicable to diverse contexts across the world and United States, where gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men, as well as transgender individuals at high risk for HIV, remain stigmatized and cannot readily access local healthcare resources tailored to their needs,” she says.

Lelutiu-Weinberger and her co-principal investigator John Pachankis of Yale University recently returned to Romania to launch the next phase of the study. The program could eventually be adopted by public healthcare organizations and practitioners who want to reach more LGBTQ people using mobile technologies across the world.

The findings appear in JMIR Mhealth Uhealth.

Source: Rutgers University