Recruiters go online to find volunteers for HIV vaccine study

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 7, 2010

Faced with the challenge of finding gay HIV-negative men to participate in a vaccine study, recruiters have turned to social networking media and hook-up Web sites to find possible volunteers.

The Seattle-based HIV Vaccine Trials Network, an international collaboration of scientists and educators searching for an effective and safe vaccine against the virus, is looking for 1,350 HIV-negative gay men between 18- and 45-years-old to participate.

The volunteers will participate in a study called HVTN 505, which examines a combination of two vaccines under investigation. It is being conducted at clinics in 13 cities across the United States.

Targets for the study are HIV-negative men who engage in risky sexual behavior with other men. Half of the participants receive injections of the vaccines; the others a placebo.

The study is examining whether the vaccines can lower the viral load in people who become infected with HIV after receiving the vaccine or placebo. There is no HIV in the vaccines and volunteers cannot contract the virus from them. Participants get counseling on how to reduce their risk of infection. And they all receive condoms.

The study has an 18-month enrollment period and participants may be observed for up to five years. Volunteers receive a small stipend for their time and travel to the clinics.

Colleen Murphy of the AIDS Research Alliance in Los Angeles told EDGE her organization uses Facebook, Twitter and Craigslist to recruit volunteers.

"We let our community know where we'll be conducting outreach, post pictures from our outreach events and share educational stories and links through Facebook and Twitter," she said. "It's a great way to share what's going on and to celebrate when we enroll a new study volunteer. We use Craigslist to post our recruitment ads twice a week. We've seen awareness and interest increase since launching these tools."

Erik Kutz of the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago uses his Facebook profile to attract possible candidates. He has sent messages to more than 100 gay men on his friends list asking them to consider participating in the study or to pass information about it along to others. Kutz also responds to Craigslist ads, but he said they have not proven successful.

"Most of the e-mails I send are deleted or they reply with some harsh comment," he said. "Some replies question the validity of the vaccine trial and the safety precautions."

Kutz has had more success with Bareback Real Time Sex, a Web site that features personal ads and other features. He said he averages around 10 positive replies each week-many of which include a request for more information or a pre-screening appointment. And Kutz indicated more than a dozen pre-screens have come through the site.

Recruiters have not abandoned advertising on public transit, posters, distributing palm cards in gay bars, canvassing neighborhoods and other traditional recruitment techniques. But they have, however, combined them with 21st Century strategies that are edgier and more provocative.

One involves placing ads on Manhunt and other hook-up sites that include a link to a Web site ( where those that might want to volunteer can get more information.

The clinics also are using Facebook and Craigslist in unique ways.

Coco Cuizon-Alinsug, a recruiter at the Fenway Health Vaccine Studies clinic in Boston, spends hours each week reading personal ads on Craigslist. He invites individuals who appear to fit the target profile to consider participating in the trial.

According to an HTVN press release, Cuizon-Alinsug has become adept at finding and recognizing such candidates based on the information in their ads, especially when they describe specific sexual behaviors.

Just like those of recruiters using traditional methods, Cuizon-Alinsug finds his work to be labor intensive. He may contact hundreds of men before he gets one to come into the clinic for pre-screening.

The New York Blood Center's Laboratory of Infectious Disease Prevention's clinic has also placed banner ads on Manhunt. John Bonelli of Project Achieve told EDGE his group has worked with Manhunt to send e-mail messages about the vaccine study to more than 20,000 of its members in specific neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.

The New York HTVN unit, which also includes Columbia University, has also hired a full-time online recruiter.

"The staff person uses various social-networking sites, such as Facebook, and gay men's hook-up sites to promote the vaccine study and reach out to gay communities," Bonelli said.

Kimberly Louis of the HIV Vaccine Trials Unit at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle told EDGE it posts recruitment ads in the Craigslist jobs section and visits gay Internet chat and dating sites.

It uses Facebook as a tool to recruit and also to reach out to supporters of HIV vaccine research.

"Facebook is one of the main sources for making people aware of research," Louis explained. "Moreover, it is used to educate potential volunteers about HIV vaccine studies to dispel myths that may act as barriers to enrollment."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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