Geosocial Networking Apps Could Help Prevent and Treat HIV Infections

October 10, 2016

Medications to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS have come a long way since the 1980’s.  Although there is still no cure, with the proper care, HIV-positive individuals can live nearly as long  — and as well — as their HIV-negative counterparts. The trouble comes in identifying those who are HIV-positive, connecting them to treatment, and keeping those who are HIV-negative from becoming infected with the virus.

Geosocial networking applications (GSN apps) – programs that allow users to interact with places, events, groups, and other users near them – have existed since the early 2000s, but their use has exploded in recent years. Washington University School of Medicine assistant professor Rupa Patel, MD, MPH, DTM&H, set out to learn whether or not local HIV prevention and testing programs using geosocial networking apps were able to disseminate important health information to persons at risk for HIV, which include young men who have sex with men (MSM).

Headshot of Rupa Patel
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, School of Medicine

Dr. Patel and her colleagues partnered with a St. Louis community-based organization (CBO), which provides HIV prevention education and services utilizing a specific GSN app known to be popular with local MSM, to evaluate the app program in terms of the number of persons tested and linked to care. The user profile, created by trained CBO HIV prevention staff, provided information on the CBO’s free HIV testing services, and any interested user that contacted the profile was able to receive testing by trained staff. During the course of the program, 98 individuals contacted the CBO profile, and 17 of them were tested for HIV within 72 hours. Of those 17 people, six people between the ages of 17-30 years, tested positive for HIV and were referred to a treatment provider, and the other 11 were offered information about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), including where to obtain it in the St. Louis area.


PrEP linkage to care among African American MSM by a community-based organization HIV prevention program using geosocial networking applications.

PrEP is an oral pill, which contains two medications called tenofovir and emtricitabine,  that has been hailed as a “game changer” for HIV prevention. When taken correctly, oral PrEP is over 92% effective, when taken daily, at preventing HIV acquisition among at-risk individuals.

In this program, ten out of eleven HIV-negative individuals expressed interest in obtaining PrEP, and six of them followed up by attending appointments with local PrEP providers.

“This pilot CBO-based HIV prevention program, incorporating the use of a GSN app, led to the detection of a very high rate of previously undiagnosed HIV-infected Black MSM,” she concluded. “PrEP has the ability to halt transmission in high incident sexual networks which outreach by GSN applications can help facilitate.” In short, GSN apps might be the next frontier for prevention health education messaging among specific populations.