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Study aims to change behavior

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has been a pressing health issue for the last three decades. As of March 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) estimates that there are currently 1.2 million people living with this disease in the United States. Although people infected span across all ages, ethnic groups, and lifestyles, a handful of groups tend to see higher rates of infection than others. One such group is African-American men who have sex with other men. After noticing these trends, the School of Social Work developed a study to look at the efficacy of preventative treatment in reducing this group’s percentage of infection.

The study is called Black Men Evolving, or B-Me. Darrell Wheeler, PhD, dean of the School of Social Work, is the principal investigator of the study.

“Something is wrong. We shouldn’t be seeing these rates of infection [within this group] given the population,” he says.

B-Me is looking to see if behavioral intervention focusing on critical thinking and cultural affirmation can help lower this group’s rate of high-risk sexual behavior. The primary goal of the study is to promote safe sex norms, positive attitudes toward condom use, and self-protection from HIV/AIDS through behavioral intervention.

“I believe self-affirmation exudes self-love. Critical thinking helps men with impulse control,” says Stephen Armstead, the B-Me study coordinator.

The five-year study, ending in April 2015, is a home-grown study, meaning it is being conducted in the community instead of within a University. It is being funded by the CDC.

The study calls for 438 African-American men who have sex with other men. All participants will be given a survey at the start of the study regarding their sexual practices. They will then be split into two groups: a control group and an intervention group. Those in the control group will receive monthly text messages that positively reinforce cultural ideas and self-affirmation. The participants in the intervention group will attend a weekend retreat, as well as receive the monthly text messages. All the men will take the surveys again at the three-month mark and the six-month mark.

Armstead says B-Me is different from other HIV/AIDS studies in two main ways. First, the intervention is behavioral instead of biomedical. The study is looking at how effective behavioral change is as opposed to the changes brought about by medical drugs. Secondly, the study does not focus on identity. They purposely are using the term “men who have sex with other men” instead of labeling participants as gay or homosexual.

“We are attempting to not be labeled as a gay study so as not to stigmatize people. HIV is not transmitted by identity, it is transmitted by behavior,” says Armstead.

This type of study is one that Dean Wheeler sees as being “wholly consistent” with the Loyola mission and identity.

“If you think about this epidemic, [our study] is a fitting action for Loyola because of the University’s commitment to social justice and integrating intellectual resources to unlock problems here in Chicago,” he says.

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