A professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is conducting a study to determine the effects of HIV messaging on social media platforms.

Social media has played a significant role in promoting human rights on the African continent, and it may have the same effect in promoting HIV testing in SA.

According to a 2013 United Nations HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) report, approximately 6.3 million people in SA are living with HIV. Based off of Sinan Aral’s research on the “I’ll jump if you do” behavioural tendency and peer influence online, social networking could assist public health efforts to garner a more accurate picture of the scope of HIV and AIDS while promoting awareness to get tested for HIV. Aral aims to distinguish between peer influence and self governed individual choices. “There are a number of situations in society where we have these feedback loops, between public opinion and individual decision-making,” said Aral. “I really see this as a basic science.”

The use of social media for disease surveillance has been around for more than a decade and resulted in the development of apps such as Healthmap and Sickweather that mine data from Twitter to track diseases. Aral’s study aims to harness the power of social media to drive preventative care rather than simply tracking disease and could work to alleviate the stigma associated with HIV testing – which is still a challenge in SA.

Aral’s research may open a gateway for testing and preventative messaging, but post-testing factors remain a challenge, such as access to treatment, stock outs of antiretroviral medication and adherence to the medication regime.

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