The positives of HIV testing: A tale of two cultures

A version of this post originally appeared on TEDMED Blog. Reposted with permission.

Last week, we hosted a live online discussion about essential community building blocks for breaking the links between poverty and poor health outcomes. The need to think creatively is perhaps strongest in local HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives. Cultural pressures, health myths and access issues can hamper engagement and progress and yet, two campaigns are making strides.

The Many “Reasons” to Get Checked Program

Putting a positive spin on HIV testing for young men at high risk for the disease may be a daunting task, but culturally poignant messages may go a long way toward selling the value of getting checked.

Manuel Rodriguez manages the “Reasons” program for the nonprofit human development organization, FHI 360. Reasons is a messaging campaign that aims to get Latino men who have sex with men to undergo testing for the HIV virus. It comprises social media outreach, print, TV and online advertisements, and presence at gay pride events, and currently focuses on cities with many members of the target population, including Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

“We all have a reason for getting HIV tested,” the ads say, including words like love, life, family and pride.

Rodriguez says Reasons aims to touch on the strong sense of community in the Latino culture, which holds whether one is a first generation immigrant or has lived in the U.S. for decades (Rodriguez was born in Caracas, Venezuela).

“We incorporate family and friends and the importance of protecting your partner. Mom is a very big figure in Latino culture, so some of the messages are, ‘I’ll do it for my mom to make sure I’m going to be there for her,’” Rodriguez says.

Another hallmark of the effort is its positive, not punishing, slant.

“We see this as a new way to communicate because it comes from a positive and empowerment framework, instead of, ‘You must do this, because you do that.’ It’s more of a value-driven proposal. ‘You can control it. You can prevent it.’

“As a person, your value as a member of a family and your community is health. To be there for them is to take control of your health,” he says.

Rodriguez says impact of the year-old program is measured so far in the millions of online website views and by a big bump in social media interactions since the program launched. The program has conducted strategic online listening activities to fine-tune campaign messages. Some findings include that some Latino gay and bisexual men see testing as the right thing to do, and they go as far as to share Instagrams of their test results as a badge of honor — negative results, because a positive test result still carries a stigma in Latino culture; one that Rodriguez has worked to mitigate throughout his career in public health communication.

Though Reasons has a defined target audience, Rodriguez says that its themes may turn out to be not so specific after all:

“We think at the end of all these Pride events and local mobilization, we’re going to have a story to tell. And we’re going to find out that these will be universal themes that unite us all.”

Taking Pride in Resilience Program

Another FHI 360-managed program, Testing Makes You Stronger, is aimed at African-American men with male partners. According to Cornelius Baker, Technical Advisor for HIV and AIDS and Community Health at FHI 360, the Testing campaign reflects a common ethos in the black community of “that which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’”

“It’s the messages one gets by growing up in an African-American family; that of resilience, that you can survive through tough things,” Baker says. “It’s also very much that sense of pride, of having a respect of agency for the community. People want to live well; they want to survive. What we have to do is create an environment of support for that and give people the tools to be able to benefit themselves,” he says.

Baker says his organization gathered input from community leaders, advocates and the Testing target audience — more than 400 black men in five cities — before embarking on the campaign. There is also a campaign for African-American women: Take Charge: Take the Test.

Both campaigns are funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also lends its scientific and technical expertise to governments and agencies worldwide to help stop the spread of HIV.

(For more on how global health strategies are applied locally, join TEDMED’s special World Health Day Google Hangout on April 7.)

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