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OHTN conference celebrates advances in HIV research, identifies gaps

New strategy uses video games as a tool to deliver HIV prevention messages

John Christensen, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, talks about his strategy for using sexually explicit video games to deliver HIV-prevention messages. Credit: Elah Feder

The 2013 Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN) research conference wrapped up on Nov 19 in Toronto, concluding three days of talks and discussion panels covering advances in care and prevention and exploring the emotional and physical dimensions of living with HIV.

Jae Sevelius, assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco, stressed the need for research and interventions specifically designed for trans women, who are among the most vulnerable to HIV infection globally yet are routinely lumped under the LGBT umbrella — or even with men who have sex with men (MSM).

To illustrate the importance of trans-focused research, Sevelius pointed to a widely cited 2010 study that found that antiretrovirals could effectively prevent infection when taken prophylactically by HIV-negative people. The study included both MSM and trans women, but later analysis showed that the intervention was protective only for MSM — a little-known detail with critical public health implications.

John Christensen, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, presented a relatively novel prevention strategy: sexually explicit video games for MSM. Players navigate through virtual sexual encounters, from first meeting to flirting to sex (or no sex), while the game interjects to validate safe choices and point out when players might have acted differently.

In a recent study, Christensen and his colleagues found that subjects experienced reduced feelings of shame immediately after playing the game, which in turn predicted reduced risky sexual behaviour in the months that followed.

An audience member noted that one of the games contained language that could be interpreted as fear-mongering, underscoring the challenges of formulating prevention messages that do not contribute to the stigmatization of people living with HIV.

On the final session, on Nov 19, a panel of researchers discussed healthy living strategies, including improved nutrition, physical exercise, sleep, smoking cessation, stress reduction through mindfulness practices, and cognitive exercises.

Over the course of the conference, attendees were invited to participate in morning wellness sessions, which included yoga, tai chi and a five-kilometre run.

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and CIHR sponsored the conference, which was also supported by several pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, including Merck, Gilead, ViiV Healthcare, Bristol-Myers Squibb Canada, Janssen and AbbVie.