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Joseph Konstan and B. R. Simon Rosser next to a computer screen

B. R. Simon Rosser (left) and Joseph Konstan

Fighting HIV in cyberspace

U professors use the Internet to help prevent HIV

By Robyn White

December 21, 2007

A new Web-based software program is the latest tool University of Minnesota researchers are using to help fight the spread of HIV.

A team of researchers led by Joseph Konstan, a professor in computer science and engineering, and B. R. Simon Rosser, a professor in epidemiology and community health, are embarking on a clinical trial this month to test a software program that aims to reduce risk-taking behavior associated with the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

It's the second phase of a project Konstan and Rosser's research team has been working on for more than five years. Phase I of the study entailed assessing the risks undertaken by men seeking sex with other men through online venues.

This month's clinical trial prompts users to answer questions about issues such as body image, self-esteem, sexual health and risk-taking behaviors. The program then offers users information about HIV/AIDS, along with instructive stories. "The goal of this research is to create a genuine online experience that promotes healthier sexual behavior and encourages people to take fewer risks in sexual encounters outside of cyberspace," Konstan says.

The team's work has become a multi-phased, interdisciplinary project, called the Men's Internet Study (MINTS). The group is also joining with a technology company--Allen Interactions--to develop the intervention techniques. Konstan and Rosser hope these trials will show that the Web-based program is effective in the prevention of risk-related behavior leading to sexually transmitted infections.

"If we don't do [HIV prevention outreach] right or in a way that's most responsive, we're going to have a new HIV epidemic," says Rosser. "There's enormous urgency in addressing gaps in HIV prevention."

Rosser, program director for the HIV/STI Intervention and Prevention Studies (HIPS), says that it's crucial to use the Internet for disease prevention, because their research shows that seeking sex is the most popular use for the Internet among high-risk populations. "If we don't do [HIV prevention outreach] right or in a way that's most responsive, we're going to have a new HIV epidemic. There's enormous urgency in addressing gaps in HIV prevention," he says.

A new model

Andy Birkey, the Health Education Coordinator at the Minnesota AIDS Project, says Internet outreach is a big part of his job in helping to prevent HIV. He says having an additional computer-based resource like the one being developed through the University MINTS project would be a huge help.

"A big part of what we do is to refer people to other resources online," says Birkey. "Having a larger place to send people that's comprehensive is a really good thing." Birkey says this prevention work is crucial not only because of the number of people meeting online, but also because a lot of the people he's reaching don't have adequate access to sexual health information or health care in general.

To that end, in addition to hopes for HIV prevention Rosser and Konstan hope the prevention model can be used for other public health purposes. "The importance of the MINTS Internet study is not just addressing HIV," Rosser says.

This fall, he and Konstan and Rosser also began teaching a course focused on the concepts and methodologies of developing online prevention for public health issues like cancer, substance abuse, and obesity. Rosser says the course drew students from the School of Public Health, the Medical School, the Institute of Technology, and the College of Liberal Arts.

For more information about the new study, visit MINTS.