The HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) in the US is finding that Facebook, blogs and other social media are valuable outreach tools in recruiting gay men for its latest vaccine study.

Clinical sites in 13 cities across the US are looking for a total of 1,350 HIV-negative gay men to take part in HVTN 505, an exploratory Phase II clinical trial sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and looking at whether a two-part vaccine regimen can decrease viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood) in study participants who later become infected with HIV.

These trial sites are using social media to help reach potential participants “where they are, which, these days, is increasingly online”, notes the HVTN, which is conducting the study for the NIAID.

HVTN 505 will employ a ‘prime-boost strategy’ involving two investigational vaccines developed at NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center: a series of three immunisations with a recombinant DNA-based vaccine (the primer) over eight weeks, followed by a single immunisation with a recombinant vaccine (the booster) based on a weakened adenovirus type 5 (Ad5) that carries the vaccine contents and helps stimulate the immune system.

Ad5 is a common virus that normally – i.e., when not disabled, as in this trial – causes colds. The Ad5 vaccine to be used in HVTN 505 encodes for HIV proteins found both inside the virus and on its outer envelope.

To encourage recruitment, the HVTN is running a series of advertisements on Facebook, seeking men who are interested in men and live in or near one of the cities with clinics taking part in the trial. The Network has also developed a “much edgier and more provocative” ad, placed on online gay hook-up sites, to help steer interested individuals network-wide towards a website for more information.

These online efforts integrate with standard media pieces such as transit advertisements and posters, as well as giveaways like condoms, palm cards, yo-yos and coasters, the HVTN points out.

One trial site, the Fenway Health Vaccine Studies clinic in Boston, has folded Craigslist into its mix of successful recruitment venues. One of the clinic’s recruiters for HIV vaccine trials spends hours each week reading personal ads on Craigslist and inviting individuals who appear to fit the target profile to consider participating in a trial – specifically responding to personal ads that describe risky behaviour.

The HVTN also describes how one man travelled 60 miles from Tuscaloosa to be screened for the Network’s latest HIV vaccine trial at the University of Alabama, only to find he was ineligible due to having had adenovirus type 5 in the past.
Undeterred, he started a Facebook group to spread the word about the need for trial participants. Over the first two months, this man reached almost 1,200 followers (mainly college students), and six of these followers to date have enrolled for the HVTN 505 study.