Community Health Study

Monitoring Risk Behaviors and HIV Seroprevalence Among General Population

At a glance:

There have been few attempts to monitor the risk behaviors and HIV seroprevalence among the general population.

Understanding the HIV epidemic in Los Angeles requires establishing an integrated, multilevel surveillance system for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). Information about sexual and substance use risk behaviors, HIV seroprevalence, and public knowledge, attitudes, and norms regarding HIV are needed for public health planning. A surveillance system will be required in order for Los Angeles to maintain funding for Ryan White and other federal and state funding sources. To begin to develop a method for mounting a comprehensive surveillance system, the City of Los Angeles is planning a study examining the acceptability of anonymous HIV testing and volunteering information about one’s risk behaviors in order to allow planning for HIV-related services.

Most studies of HIV seroprevalence and risk behaviors have been conducted with subgroups identified at high risk for HIV: young gay men, injecting drug users, homeless adolescents, or seriously mentally ill adults. There have been few attempts to monitor the risk behaviors and HIV seroprevalence among the general population (not necessarily from identified high-risk groups). Before any comprehensive surveillance system can be established, the ability to monitor HIV in community settings and among households in neighborhoods with high rates of AIDS cases must be established. To fill this gap, a two-phase project is being initiated by the city in order to assess the acceptability of HIV testing and reporting one’s risk behaviors when approached: 1) in a household survey; or 2) in a neighborhood setting such as a shopping mall, grocery center, theater, or church.

First, the acceptability of gathering HIV-related information from a household will be examined by conducting a supplement to the Los Angeles Health Survey that will be mounted this summer. An anonymous telephone interview will be conducted with random digit dialing of households within the City of Los Angeles. Randomly selected telephone numbers (n=100) will be surveyed on knowledge of transmission of HIV, attitudes and norms towards members of high-risk groups (e.g., gay men) and infected persons, and willingness to anonymously be tested for HIV. All responses will be recorded unlinked from telephone numbers selected by random digit dialing; therefore the identify of all respondents will be unknown and can never be traced. From gathering this information, the acceptability of a household approach as a method of gathering information about HIV-related information will be assessed.

Second, a community with a high rate of AIDS cases will be selected. In this neighborhood, local leaders will be consulted to identify a strategy for sampling community members anonymously and in settings accessible to all community members. In shopping malls in both communities, adults will be asked to anonymously volunteer to participate in a survey of attitudes and norms regarding HIV prevention activities, recent sexual and substance use risks acts, and consent to a saliva-based HIV test. The results of any individual test results will not be available; unmarked samples will be collected in order to indicate a community seroprevalence rate. Interested individuals will be offered an incentive for participating in the survey and test. The willingness of adult members of the community to participate in a study anonymously will be evaluated. Similar to the telephone household survey, no identity of any participant will be obtained. Overall, community rates will be obtained, but no individual information regarding risk or infection status.

The results of these two activities will be used to inform the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor’s decisions regarding the best method for establishing surveillance methods for HIV infection and predictions regarding the future routes and subgroups for HIV infection. Currently, the County is considering adopting a method of practitioners informing public health officials of all persons testing seropositive for HIV or for a system of unique identifiers for persons who test seropositive for HIV. Both of these systems rely on the identification of seropositive persons, an event that typically occurs about 10 years after a person has become infected. Alternative strategies for monitoring the epidemic, especially among communities with an emerging epidemic must be identified. These studies will inform the strategy selected by the County and may become a national model.