The use of the Internet as a tool for early detection of HIV cases among men who have sex with men (MSM) has proven to be effective in Ho Chi Minh City.

Satisfactory results were announced during a meeting on October 1 to evaluate the projects with officials from the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), one year after the programme was piloted with eight peer educators knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS and Internet use.

According to Nguyen Thi Hue, head of the Harm Reduction Department under the Ho Chi Minh City AIDS Committee, the project will be expanded to other provinces and cities.

The city, which has widespread Internet use, has more than 24,000 MSM aged between 15 and 49. Recent surveys show that using Internet to seek partners has become popular among the city's youth.

The AIDS Committee of Ho Chi Minh City said the model was effective between July 2012 and June 2013. Roughly 5,500 MSM were accessed through the Internet and more than 6,000 reached with traditional methods.

However, in order to achieve good results, the committee needs 58 peer educators for traditional methods, while it needs only eight people for online access. The budget for traditional outreach last year was reported at more than 3.2 billion VND (150,000) while the budget for internet access was 215 million VND.

The city had 450 peer educators for at-risk members of the MSM community, but the number has fallen to 100. In the future, there will be only MSM 70 peer educators who will receive salaries from the State budget, Hue said, adding that the number of online peer educators will be maintained at eight.

Marta Ackers, associate director of the US's PEPFAR programme office in Ho Chi Minh City, said the project had been promising in the city, and neighbouring countries were also using this method.

Community outreach is one of the most important elements of HIV prevention strategies targeting the people most at risk.

Ackers recalled the situation in 1993 when HIV began to spread. Ho Chi Minh City implemented a harm-reduction programme, by piloting a needle-syringe programme for injection-drug users (IDUs) and condom use programme for female sex workers (FSWs) through peer-outreach workers.

The peer outreach worker network now is used in all of Ho Chi Minh City's districts to serve the highest at-risk population, including IDUs and FSWs by delivering free needle- syringes and condoms. Currently, only 3 percent of the 20,000 to 25,000 most at-risk population of MSMs in Ho Chi Minh City have been reached via traditional outreach.-VNA