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Northwestern University's Working On A Multimedia Program To Lower HIV Diagnoses In Younger Men

Northwestern is trying to lower the HIV infection rate of young men who have sex with men. To do that, they’ve created a fun and informational game, soap opera, and interactive program.

Young gay and bisexual men are 44 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than their straight peers. Plus, queer men of color are at an even higher risk (1 in 4 Latino men who have sex with other men and half of all black men who have sex with other men are projected to become HIV positive in their lifetimes).

These numbers are frightening.

In order to combat that, Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine created the “Keep it Up!” multimedia program.

The program uses several different modules such as a soap opera titled Sex in the City, a Bar & Club video game, animated storylines about dating older men, using dating apps, and being in relationships, and interview videos with people on the New York, Atlanta, and Chicago streets.

All of which, they insist have a diverse cast of characters to keep the stories as inclusvie and dynamic as possible.

The goal was to create a program that not only taught about safe sex practices but made it approachable.

The team behind “Keep It Up!” interviewed gay and bisexual men between the ages of 18 and 29 who lived in metropolitan areas. The questionnaire asked where these men received their sexual health information and what they still wanted to know about HIV.

The results from those interviewees revealed that the available resources were too academic and removed from reality. The interviewees “really wanted to understand how [HIV prevention] fit into their lives,” said Brian Mustanski, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing and lead author of the study. “They didn’t want … it [to] feel like it was a class, you know?”

As such, Mustanski and his team developed “Keep It Up!” to be an interactional multimedia program that had the participants watching real-life situations.

They then tested this program through a randomized and controlled trial with more than 900 gay and bisexual men as participants. The information provided by “Keep it UP!” was then tested against static sex ed materials.

The results found that there were 40 percent fewer cases of gonorrhea and chlamydia infection amount the men who used “Keep It Up!”

But why test for gonorrhea and chlamydia and not just HIV? Mustanski says the rarity of HIV infection meant they would have needed “an enormous trial to detect an effect.” As such, these two STDs, which “biologically increase your risk of getting HIV” and can easily be tested for with simple swabbing, were the next best choices to find markers of risky sexual behavior.

But as well as that test went, Mustanski and Northwestern want “Keep it UP!” to go across the U.S.

“There’s no point in doing it if it’s just going to sit on the shelf,” says Mustanski.

As such, they are currently seeking funding to test the program across the country. If successful, we may be one step closer to a more dynamic and helpful sexual education program in the U.S. and the world at large.