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 VOL. 23, NO. 21APRIL 17, 1998 

Social Work School’s ‘Project Connect’ Test HIV Prevention Methods


While the media continues to report on new medication options for treating HIV and AIDS, the AIDS epidemic is far from over. Worldwide, sexual intercourse between men and women is still the most common mode of AIDS transmission, and in the United States, AIDS is still among the leading causes of death for men and women ages 25–45. Many studies have shown that, while men and women have begun using condoms with casual partners, they do not regularly use condoms when having sex with their main partners or spouses.

  Until now, most HIV prevention research programs focused only on women, encouraging them to insist that their male partners wear a male condom or to “just say no” to sex. The programs place little emphasis on female-controlled methods, like the new female condom, to protect against sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV. Yet there is some evidence suggesting that working together with both partners, the man and the woman, may be a better way to teach the importance of condom use and HIV prevention.

  A groundbreaking study with heterosexual couples is underway here in New York City. The Social Intervention Group at the School of Social Work is conducting a four-year study, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, to test an HIV prevention program for heterosexual couples called Project Connect.

  Project Connect will recruit 450 couples from outpatient health clinics throughout New York City to participate in the study. Eligible couples are assigned by lottery to one of three different types of service: six sessions where couples learn communication and safer sex skills; six sessions where the women alone learn communication and safer sex skills; or a single session where the women alone learn about HIV/AIDS risks and safer sex. The goal of the study is to determine whether working with men and women together for six sessions will yield more successful reduction in sexual risk behaviors among couples than working with women alone for one or six sessions.

  The Social Intervention Group is a team of researchers that designs, develops, tests and disseminates new and innovative approaches to ameliorating and preventing social problems, including HIV/AIDS and substance abuse.

  The principal investigator of Project Connect is Nabila El-Bassel, an associate professor at the School of Social Work. John Key and Omi Gray are research coordinators who coordinate all assessment and intervention aspects of the Project. Robert Schilling is a coinvestigator on the project and Louisa Gilbert and Susan Witte are investigators. The core staff is composed of ten professionals from social work, psychology and public health backgrounds. The team works in consultation with Peter Steinglass, associate director of the Ackerman Institute for the Family in Manhattan.

  “Working together with men and women may be a more effective way to promote consistent safer sex behaviors,” says John Key, the Project’s assessment coordinator for men.

  “We need to help couples to understand that protecting each other from HIV infection is the ultimate act of love and support. What better way to say ‘you really matter to me and I want you around to share my life with’?”

  The results of Project Connect should provide critical information about more effective ways to prevent the continuing spread of HIV infection.