Do your friends put your sexual health at risk?

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One of the biggest hurdles to tackling HIV is a lack of prevention messaging that resonates. Now a new UTHealth study seeks young gay Houston men to hit them where they live – in their social circles.

The problem at hand couldn’t be more clear or more pressing. HIV rates in the U.S. are dropping, unless you're gay. That goes double if you’re also young. Among gay men, uncontrolled cases of the disease are rampant. 

Maybe catching you at the bar, gym, on social media, or at an LGBT organizational meeting could be the ticket to changing those stats over time, says Dennis Li, project director of YMAP, a new study of gay men age 17-29 by the University of Texas Health Science at Houston (UTHealth).

“Humans are social beings, and our thoughts and behaviors are highly influenced by the places we go and the people we spend our time with,” Li tells Project Q. “YMAP uses a method called social network analysis to find patterns in the connections between people and venues, which tells us more about how the social structures in our community affect how young men behave.”

And they need your help. YMAP, or Young Men’s Affiliation Project, seeks hundreds of sexually active young gay and bisexual men in Houston and Chicago to talk about their friends and social networks, their sex life and sexually transmitted infections.

The project is headquartered in UTHealth's School of Public Health in Houston. The information they gleen from social networking habits will hopefully inform HIV prevention messages that young gay men will actually listen to and hopefully heed.

What’s in it for you? You help future generations, and you get paid $50 for every interview during the process as well as other goodies and perks. We asked Li some pointed questions on your behalf before you sign up. He opened up about the study’s methods and the program’s long range potential.

What exactly is YMAP?

YMAP, or the Young Men’s Affiliation Project, is a community-based research study of young gay, bisexual, queer, and same-gender-loving men 17-29 years old in Houston and other cities.

We are interested in learning more about how these young men’s connections with important people, places, and spaces in the community—venues such as bars and clubs, social media, health centers, and other businesses and organizations—impact their sexual health.

 

Who can participate, and how are they compensated?

YMAP is looking for 500 young men in the Houston area to participate in our study. To be eligible, you have to be a cis-gender male between 17 and 29 years old, plan to stay in the Houston area for at least one year, and have had oral or anal sex with a man in the last year.

In addition to helping improve the health of our community, participants receive $50 per interview as well as a cool YMAP t-shirt and a sports bag. They also earn monetary incentives for each friend they successfully refer into the study.

 

Why young men in particular?

Young men who have sex with men, particularly young men of color, is the group most severely and disproportionately affected by HIV in the United States. According to the CDC, in 2010, young gay and bisexual men 13–24 years old accounted for 72 percent of new HIV infections among all persons in that age group and nearly one third of new infections among all gay and bisexual men.

The rate of new HIV infections is also on the rise, increasing 22 percent among young gay and bisexual men between 2008 and 2010. Additionally, less than half of young gay and bisexual men 18–24 years old who have HIV are actually aware of their HIV status. Young men who have sex with men are thus an important target for both prevention and testing/treatment efforts.

 

Your pitch of the project talks about “risk networks.” What are those?

Just as health education and health promoting behaviors can be “transmitted” through a network of individuals and venues, so can information and practices that increase the risks of getting HIV and other STIs. We are interested in identifying how risk behaviors can move through a community and identify key points at which to intervene.

 

How does it work, and what can participants expect?

We collect information on young men’s demographics, behaviors, relationships with peers and partners, and affiliations with various venues through face-to-face interviews. During the interview, we also conduct a rapid HIV test, draw a small amount of blood for free confirmatory HIV and syphilis testing, and collect a self-administered test for anal HPV, which is the virus that causes anal warts and cancer. A follow-up visit one year later checks to see if anything has changed.

 

What are YMAP’s ultimate goals?

We hope to use the social network data gathered from YMAP to understand how things like knowledge, behavior, and disease spread through our community; to develop better health education, prevention, and treatment programs; and to identify where the best places to deliver those programs are.

 

Anything you’d like to add?

Because we are studying social networks, when you enroll in YMAP, you will be asked to refer your friends and acquaintances into the study. You receive additional monetary incentives for each person you successfully refer. You can even come together to your interviews.

Not only will you help advance our understanding and development of programs for you and others like you, you and your friends will also benefit from free HIV and syphilis testing as well as the monetary incentives cool t-shirt, and sports bag.

 

To find out if you are eligible to participate in YMAP, call or text 832-554-6540, or send researchers an email. For more information, visit YMAP online, or follow YMAP on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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