Can social media help stop the spread of HIV?

October 29, 2014, Cell Press
Map showing the origins of tweets related to HIV. Credit: Sean Young

In addition to providing other potential benefits to public health, all of those tweets and Facebook posts could help curb the spread of HIV.

Although public health researchers have focused early applications of social media on reliably monitoring the spread of diseases such as the flu, Sean Young of the Center for Digital Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes in an October 29th article in the Cell Press journal Trends in Microbiology of a future in which social media might predict and even change biomedical outcomes.

"We know that mining social media will have huge potential benefits for many areas of medicine in the future, but we're still in the early stages of testing how powerful these technologies will be," Young said.

With the right tools in place, he says, social media offers a rich source of psychological and health-related data generated in an environment in which people are often willing to share freely.

His recent work on Behavioral Insights on Big Data (BIBD) for HIV offers the tantalizing possibility that insights gleaned from social media could be used to help governments, public health departments, hospitals, and caretakers monitor people's health behaviors "to know where, when, and how we might be able to prevent HIV transmission."

Young details a social-media-based intervention in which African American and Latino men who have sex with men shared a tremendous amount of personal information through social media, including when or whether they had 'come out,' as well as experiences of homelessness and stigmatization. What's more, they found that people who discussed HIV prevention topics on social media were more than twice as likely to later request an HIV test.

In the context of HIV prevention, tweets have also been shown to identify people who are currently or soon to engage in sexual- or drug-related risk behaviors. Those tweets can be mapped to particular locations and related to actual HIV trends.

What's needed now is the updated infrastructure and sophisticated toolkits to handle all of those data, Young said, noting that there are about 500 million communications sent every day on Twitter alone. He and a team of University of California computer scientists are working to meet that challenge now.

Although privacy concerns about such uses of social media shouldn't be ignored, Young says there is evidence that people have already begun to accept such uses of , even by corporations looking to boost profits.

"Since people are already getting used to the fact that corporations are doing this, we should at least support public health researchers in using these same methods to try and improve our health and well being," he said. "We're already seeing increased support from patients and departments."

Explore further: Twitter 'big data' can be used to monitor HIV and drug-related behavior, study shows

More information: Trends in Microbiology, Young: "Behavioral insights on big data: using social media for predicting biomedical outcomes" (2014)

Related Stories

Twitter 'big data' can be used to monitor HIV and drug-related behavior, study shows

February 27, 2014
Real-time social media like Twitter could be used to track HIV incidence and drug-related behaviors with the aim of detecting and potentially preventing outbreaks, a new UCLA-led study shows.

Twitter-funded lab to seek social media insights

October 1, 2014
A new Twitter-funded research project unveiled Wednesday, with access to every tweet ever sent, will look for patterns and insights from the billions of messages sent on social media.

Social media may prove useful in prevention of HIV, STDs, study shows

February 6, 2013
(Medical Xpress)— Facebook and other social networking technologies could serve as effective tools for preventing HIV infection among at-risk groups, new UCLA research suggests.

Combo of social media, behavior psychology leads to HIV testing, better health behaviors

September 5, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Can social media be used to create sustainable changes in health behavior? A UCLA study published Sept. 3 in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrates that an approach that combines ...

Recommended for you

New HIV therapy reduces virus, boosts immunity in drug-resistant patients

August 15, 2018
In a study, a new HIV drug reduced viral replication and increased immune cells in individuals with advanced, drug-resistant HIV infection. Used in combination with existing HIV medications, the drug is a promising strategy ...

In choosing care, HIV patients in Zambia prefer kindness over convenience

August 15, 2018
As a healthcare patient, what would you sacrifice for a provider with a nice—rather than rude—attitude? For HIV patients in Zambia, the answer may surprise you.

Details of HIV-1 structure open door for potential therapies

August 9, 2018
New research provides details of how the structure of the HIV-1 virus is assembled, findings that offer potential new targets for treatment.

Researchers uncover potential new drug targets in the fight against HIV

August 7, 2018
Johns Hopkins scientists report they have identified two potential new drug targets for the treatment of HIV. The finding is from results of a small, preliminary study of 19 people infected with both HIV—the virus that ...

Naltrexone helps HIV positive individuals reduce heavy alcohol use

August 7, 2018
Extended-release naltrexone—an injection that decreases heavy drinking in the general population when taken in conjunction with counseling—appears to help HIV-positive individuals reduce their number of heavy drinking ...

EU door opens for generic version of AIDS medicine Truvada

July 26, 2018
Patient associations on Thursday lauded an EU decision to allow the sale of generic versions of Truvada, an anti-retroviral medicine used by those diagnosed HIV-positive, the virus causing AIDS.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.