Programming Connection

A social network approach to HIV investigation and partner notification 

Saskatoon Health Region
Saskatoon, SK
2016

What is the program?

HIV investigation and partner notification is a public health practice in which recent sexual and drug-using partners of people newly diagnosed with HIV are contacted and offered the opportunity to be tested. An HIV investigation has several components, including follow-up services for the person newly diagnosed, partner notification, HIV testing, risk reduction counselling, and prevention education.

The social network approach to HIV investigation and partner notification is a recruitment strategy that facilitates rapid dissemination of HIV testing, HIV risk reduction counselling and HIV prevention education through social networks. This offers people recently diagnosed with HIV the opportunity to refer people they know but who are not direct contacts to public health staff for HIV testing, counselling and education.

The goal of this intervention is to increase access to HIV testing and early diagnosis, counselling and prevention education during an outbreak of HIV among people who may be at ongoing high risk for HIV infection and who may not know their HIV status. This method is easily applied in any HIV investigation conducted by public health personnel because it builds on traditional HIV investigation and partner notification practices.

Since 2005, Saskatoon Health Region has included a social network component in its traditional HIV investigation and partner notification work, when appropriate. In addition to their sexual and drug-using partners, people newly diagnosed with HIV are asked about others in their social network they are concerned may be at high risk for HIV. Individuals identified through the social network approach are contacted by a public health nurse and offered testing. They are told that there is no reason to believe they have been exposed to HIV but that Saskatoon Health Region is encouraging everyone to test so they can know their status.

A social network approach focuses on the context in which high-risk behaviours occur. In implementing the social network approach, Saskatoon Health Region learned that stigma associated with drug use (especially with some specific partners1) and sex prevents some people from identifying all their direct contacts. This stigma has been reduced through the social network approach because individuals are asked about people in their social circle who they think may benefit from HIV counselling and testing.

Although this case study focuses on the use of a social network approach to HIV investigation and partner notification, a similar approach can also be used during investigations for other sexually transmitted infections and other relationally driven communicable diseases such as tuberculosis.

  • 1. When individuals are asked as part of the social network approach about people they worry about, the social contacts they identify include close family members such as parents, uncles, aunts, siblings and friends.