For a hard-to-reach population in Ukraine, innovative online HIV outreach proves critical

Roman Marchenko has dedicated years of his life to LGBTI activism. It’s a community he knows well, yet even he was surprised at the difficulty his HIV treatment and prevention organization had in reaching one key population – men who have sex with men, or MSM.

Stigma and discrimination are powerful forces, explains Marchenko, a program coordinator with the Kiev-based NGO Alliance.Global, which provides prevention counseling, testing, support groups and more for the MSM community, as well as advocacy.

To try to overcome the stigma barrier, Alliance.Global decided it had to get creative. The organization’s idea was to somehow reach men online, including through apps that Ukrainian MSM commonly use to find sexual partners.

“We had this idea,” Marchenko recalls, “but it was very raw.”

In late 2015, Alliance.Global turned to Pact’s RESPOND project for help. Funded by USAID, RESPOND began working in Ukraine in 2012 to improve the quality of HIV and AIDS services targeting key populations and their partners, and to strengthen the capacity of Ukrainian institutions and organizations to deliver quality HIV programs. RESPOND was running a competition, looking for innovative proposals for new ways to prevent HIV. Winning local organizations would receive funding, support and mentorship to make their plan a reality.

Alliance.Global submitted its idea and won. With RESPOND’s support, in 2016 the organization launched a campaign and program called Get Test. Through websites and dating apps popular among MSM, Get Test began reaching users with messages about the importance of getting tested for HIV. Men who wanted more information were encouraged to visit a website, where they could securely and confidentially register for testing, counseling and other services at a location of their choice.

Social workers with Alliance.Global also created profiles on various websites and apps, allowing them to contact other users about the importance of HIV testing and prevention.

By looking at data and gathering feedback from MSM through their social workers, Alliance.Global and RESPOND gradually improved Get Test as it grew.

“We started to analyze why this process is so painful for our clients, why we have some broken chains,” Marchenko says. “Thanks to RESPOND, we grew this program step by step – how it will be implemented in everyday life and the role of social workers. Hard questions, a lot of hard questions.”

Get Test began in Kiev and, after seeing a marked increase in HIV testing among MSM, expanded to two other cities, Odessa and Dnipro. Over 22 months, Get Test reached more than 9,000 MSM. Of them, more than 7,000 received motivational online counseling, and about 3,500 clients were tested for HIV. About 6 percent – 214 people – were positive, with 126 starting antiretroviral treatment.

Where other means failed, strategic online outreach has proven successful in getting this key population tested and linked to treatment when needed.

As for the future, Marchenko envisions expanding Get Test even more, across all of Ukraine.

“It is my hope,” he says.