by Jessica Carreras
The HIV/AIDS Resource Center of Ypsilanti has begun a relatively new program that they hope will address the problem of at-risk groups not coming in for testing – and it really pays to participate.
The program is called Refer a Friend, Get 10, and it targets men who have sex with men in the area of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Like its counterparts often used in surveys or retail, the program pays participants to refer friends to participate as well. In the case of HIV/AIDS, this could mean the difference between life and death.
Leon Golson, director of prevention programs at HARC, said the program aims to get people into testing – particularly men who have sex with men – who wouldn’t normally go to get tested, or who have never been tested.
When someone goes in to get tested and receives their results, they are asked to write down sexual partners or friends who they think may benefit from testing. Then, he is given referral cards to give to his friends, who hopefully will respond and go in for testing. “He goes out and, because he has these personal, intimate connections with these folks, it’s easy for him to strike up these conversations and bring up these concerns about how important testing is, how great his testing experience was here at HARC and how his friend should come on in and get tested,” Golson explained.
For each friend or partner who comes in, the original person – or network associate, as they’re called in the program – receives $10. The person who was referred also receives $10 when they come back for their results, and the referral process is repeated.
“They’re not very huge incentives at this point, but we’re trying,” Golson added.
The reasoning behind the program is that it will reach out to people who don’t go to clubs, or aren’t hit by other outreach tactics. “Hopefully, it’s casting that net a little further and trying to catch another pocket of MSM that may not go to Necto (nightclub),” Golson said. “We suspect there a lot more than just the ones who show up on a Friday night (to a club).”
The program comes from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the idea a few years ago. The CDC funded the program for nine organizations nationwide to check its effectiveness. The results, said Golson, were encouraging.
Of the organizations, all showed an increase in testing, and in positive identification of HIV in their respective communities – from an HIV prevalence rate of about 1 percent to about 6 percent over two years.
Michigan picked up the program in January 2008 and offered optional training to organizations that wished to implement the program. HARC did the three-day training, said Golson, as well as several other organizations such as the Community Health Awareness Group – but there was no government funding to be had. “Hopefully that will change when there’s a call for proposals in the spring,” he added, “so agencies like HARC who are interested in doing it have some experience so that when we do write to the state for funds, we’ll know what to write.”
Regardless, HARC began the program in October. The program now includes only three recruiters, but is slowly growing. “It works, but it is slow in getting the ball started,” Golson said. “We’ve got three more names that we’re going to try to get started, and we’ll see where it goes.”
However, Golson added, the outlook is good for the possibilities of the referral program. “Hopefully, it will allow us to reach people that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach,” he said. “The fact that a peer with an intimate contact with a network of folks is having these conversations really tends to hit home more than any type of PSA or billboard or bus wrap that folks might see out in the community. This takes it to another level, deeper into the community.”
For more information, visit HARC online at http://www.r2harc.org , or call 734-572-9355.