More than 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) occur each year; almost half occur in teens and young adults. Behaviors such as not using a condom or having several partners may increase the risk of getting an STI. Reaching young adults with prevention education and testing may reduce the spread of STIs and create healthy sexual behaviors that are maintained lifelong.
In Flint, Michigan, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) for African American residents aged 18-24 are among the highest in the state, but less than half of the people in this age group have been tested for STIs or HIV infection in the past three years. Social technology, such as interactive Web sites, may help to strengthen social ties, increase access to social resources, and enhance the exchange of information. Researchers are determining if engaging young adults in peer education and interactive social technology increases their knowledge of healthy sexuality, condom use, and STI/HIV testing. The researchers are also determining whether a social networking component added to an evidence-based peer education program is more effective than the program alone.
Participants from 2 counties (Saginaw and Genesee) complete surveys at the start of the program and at 3, 6, and 12 months after program completion. Participants from Saginaw County attend a peer education party (PEP), or “house party,” led by peer educators trained in STI/HIV education. Attendees receive educational information packets and free refreshments. Each party teaches participants to learn STI prevention methods, assess their risk for getting STI, develop a plan to reduce their risk, and improve their communication skills with partners. PEP booster sessions occur four to six weeks after the initial party.
PEP+ (Genesee County) adds a social technology component in which participants are invited to join an online community developed by the researchers that provides blogs, a calendar of events, sexual health podcasts, and links to other social networking sites. The online community is intended to expand educational opportunities, enhance peer mentoring, and establish an online source for information and support. Participants in PEP+ view and join the online community during their first house party.
Researchers are comparing the two groups by analyzing survey results on several outcomes: safe sex behaviors; attitudes about confidence in using contraception; social network characteristics; psychosocial factors; and partner communication. Overall STI/HIV rates for the two counties (Genesee and Saginaw) are also being compared.