Author: Evan Krueger, May 19 2014 - In 2012, the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior (CDB) teamed up with Epicentro, an independent, nonprofit organization in Lima, Peru that works to improve the lives of the city’s gay men through community building and by providing physical and mental health services. The CDB developed an HIV and stigma reduction intervention study, in which clients from Epicentro participated in a program through Facebook that not only teaches facts and skills surrounding HIV, but also allows participants to interact with each other and with study leaders.

Results are beginning to come in, and one of our first findings was that some people in our study were more likely to get tested for HIV than others were. Since HIV testing is the first step towards knowing one’s status and making informed health decisions, it is important to understand why this is the case. Stigma refers generally to negative feelings and attitudes towards a person, or group of people that are viewed as immoral, and it plays a very big role in determining whether a person is willing to get tested. We found two types of stigma to be particularly important: AIDS-related stigma and gay-related stigma. People who held very negative attitudes about people with AIDS were less likely to get tested for HIV themselves. Researchers think this might be due in part to fear of getting the results or fear of being seen getting tested, among other reasons.

Secondly, AIDS has long been known as a “gay” disease, because more gay men are affected than straight men and women. Although all of the men in our study have had sex with other men at least once in the past year, not all of them are willing to label themselves as gay, or don’t consider themselves to be gay. Whatever the reason, those who didn’t identify as gay were much less likely to get tested for HIV than those who did. Researchers think this may have quite a bit to do with stigma. People who don’t identify themselves as gay might not think it’s necessary to get tested, or they might be too nervous to get tested.

These are both important findings because they show how different types of HIV-related stigmas seem to affect whether or not people are even willing to get tested. It seems that in order to create a meaningful and lasting impact on the HIV epidemic amongst gay men in Peru, it is important to first address stigma surrounding testing. We hope the results of our study will help shape the way that researchers and clinicians attempt to address the HIV epidemic amongst gay men in Peru moving forward.

By Evan Krueger, PhD student, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Fielding School of Public Health