From June 27 to 29 at World Pride in Toronto, the CAMH mobile lab was parked on the corner of Church and Gloucester streets in the heart of the gay village.
CAMH senior scientist Dr. Paul Shuper
set up shop amid the street fair to encourage Pride-goers to participate in a sex, drugs and alcohol survey
aimed at gay, bisexual, queer and transgendered men.
The goal? To better understand the links between alcohol consumption, substance use and risky sexual behaviour.
It turns out that men who have sex with other men are disproportionately affected by HIV: roughly 49 per cent of all new HIV infections and 55 per cent of current infections in Canada occur in this population.
And in Ontario at least, sexual contact is the most common route of HIV exposure. Mitigating risky sexual behaviour, therefore, will go a long way toward reducing HIV infection in this population. And alcohol definitely plays a role.
“There are confirmed links between alcohol use and unprotected sex, and in turn HIV infection,” says Shuper. “So what we’re looking for is overall rates of alcohol and substance use, both during events like Pride and in general, and how these rates are associated with sexual risk behaviour.”
The survey hopes to identify patterns of alcohol use, substance use, and—importantly—harm-reduction strategies adopted by this population in relation to protected and unprotected sexual intercourse.
“What is important to note is that some people who use alcohol and other substances still manage to safely negotiate potentially risky situations and avoid HIV," says Shuper. "We want to identify any protective factors that can help others.”
These protective factors could be anything from ways to overcome barriers to safe practices, strategies to negotiating safe practices, and access to, and use of, condoms.
To complement the behavioural data collected, the team will also make use of biological measures, namely a saliva screening tool, which will help establish current substance use and alcohol levels among survey participants. Both the survey and the saliva test will be entirely anonymous.
World Pride provided a unique opportunity to collect a well-represented sample of the population. The mobile lab will allow the research team to survey a wide range of individuals, from Canada and around the world, of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, who are or aren’t HIV positive and who may use alcohol and/or other substances to varying degrees.
Once the results have been analyzed, next steps include real-world application—namely, developing programs designed to help others reduce risky sexual behaviour.
“The service delivery component of the project is headed by the AIDS Committee of Toronto, and they are doing terrific work in the community,” says Shuper. “One really nice thing about this project is that we’re going to be there, at World Pride, face-to-face with the community. As someone who does research full-time, that’s something I miss.”