Twitter Now a Tool for Reducing HIV Outbreaks


Due to recent study findings, researchers may have determined a new way to identify and control HIV occurrences. This new tool for reducing HIV outbreaks is the social media website Twitter.

The study which was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Preventative Medicine notes the methods and findings of researchers at UCLA regarding Twitter use and HIV outbreaks. The research project was lead by Sean Young, an associate professor of family medicine at the David Geffen school of medicine at UCLA. He states that the findings of the research are highly suggestive towards the notion that social media sites can be used to gather a high volume of data to determine possible locations for HIV outbreaks.

Researchers on this project collected over 550 million tweets between May and December of 2012. The team worked to create an algorithm that would detect certain words and phrases in the tweets to collect data on drug use and sexual activity. Words and phrases picked up by the algorithm and marked as evidence of potentially risky behavior included “sex” and “get high,” among others. Researchers then plotted the tweets on a map of the United States and compared the location of the tweets with high areas of incidence for HIV. The geographical information regarding HIV prevalence in America was provided by the website

According to researchers the algorithm detected 8,538 tweets which described behavior deemed as sexually risky, as defined by scientists in the study. The algorithm also identified 1,342 tweets which alluded to stimulant drug use. As discovered in the research, the states with the highest proportion of high-risk tweets and Twitter activity detected by the algorithm were California, Texas, New York, and Florida. Also, the study found that per capita the highest raw number of tweets which indicated risk for HIV infection included the District of Columbia, Delaware, Louisiana and South Carolina. This new data could draw conclusions making Twitter now a viable tool for reducing the number of HIV outbreaks in America.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention an estimate 1,148,200 people over the age of 13 were diagnosed with HIV in America in 2012. Additionally, the CDC has determined that approximately 50,000 individuals residing in the United States are infected with HIV annually. Also, as of 2010 over 870,000 Americans were reported to be living with the virus, and in that year alone 15,529 persons who were diagnosed with AIDS died. The deaths of these individuals can be attributed to several different causes, as the immune system of a person diagnosed with AIDS is highly compromised.

The findings from this study suggest a high correlation between Twitter activity including content alluding to drug use and tweets deemed sexually risky, and US counties where HIV incidences are high. The researchers have stated that further research efforts are necessary to draw definitive conclusions, but the results so far are highly suggestive. Scientists agree that gathering data from social media sites like Twitter can help researchers discover areas of high threat for HIV cases. With more research, Twitter could now become a tool for reducing HIV outbreaks.

By Allison Longstreet


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