Could the AIDS virus be stopped with gift cards?
Desperate for a way to stop the escalating spread of HIV among young gay men, public health officials are looking to novel strategies, such as enlisting local gay opinion leaders to urge their peers to practice safe sex.
Promising signs from such a project in North Carolina led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin rolling it out on a broader scale, to more than 200 community organizations. The budget is $1.5 million over two years.
The idea is to give gift coupons to popular, influential men in the gay community and encourage them to talk up condom use, regular HIV testing and other responsible actions.
It may sound frivolous, but little else has proven effective for the men most affected by the epidemic.
Last week, new figures showed still-rising HIV infections in gay and bisexual men, with about 53 percent of new cases in that group. Meanwhile, HIV rates among injection-drug users and heterosexuals is declining.
The CDC says it's also committed $5 million to a five-year social marketing campaign to promote HIV testing to young black gay and bisexual men, who have been diagnosed with HIV at especially high rates.
Some experts say it's been hard to find prevention efforts proven to work, and that's especially true for black and Hispanic gays, experts said.
Prevention deficiencies became clear about five years ago in North Carolina, with an outbreak of HIV among male students at some historically black colleges.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services tried a program that had been tested in white gay men in London.
With $1 million in funding from the CDC, North Carolina health officials went to gay nightclubs in Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro and recruited men who were well-liked and socially influential.
These opinion leaders were given $100 in gift cards, along with marketing materials, to talk up safe sex. A study of the effort, published in June in the American Journal of Public Health, indicated more men were practicing safe sex.