The federal government has spent over $3.7 million on a project to convince Philadelphia barbershops to advise clientele about HIV during haircuts.
The project, "Shape Up—Barbers Building Better Brothers," funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) aims to reduce the risk of HIV among heterosexual black men between the ages of 18 and 24 while they sit in the barber chair.
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Loretta Sweet Jemmott, the director of the Center for Health Disparities Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, targeted barbershops in 12 Philadelphia zip codes where HIV is most prevalent.
NIH began its funding of the five-year project in 2009 and has since continued to fund it each fiscal year. However, little information has been made available to show the project’s general progress.
"They’re promising, I can tell you that much," Jemmott said about the results so far in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon.
Barbershops "are a unique place where men gather for a haircut, along with discussions and debates about local happenings, racial and electoral politics, sports, news, and sexual encounters," noted an assessment of the study.
The assessment cited interviews with 14 barbers that took part in a preliminary focus group meant to gather feedback. A separate discussion took place afterward with barbershop owners only.
Jemmott said her previous work on HIV-related projects was part of why she managed to get a more "creative" approach funded.
"You must take the time to understand the code of their street—how they walk, how they talk, why they do what they do, how they groove, what moves ’em—the whole bit," Jemmott said about her target demographic in a 2011 Youtube video.
Barbershop owners close shop for one day to allow for three of its barbers to be trained in facilitating conversations about HIV. Then participating customers sign an attendance sheet, go outside to a medical van from the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, wherein they complete a survey and produce urine sample to test for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Once completed, the participants re-enter the shop, begin interacting with an iPad app developed by researchers and then sit down in the barber chair for a haircut and conversation about safe sex.
"The iPad app, which the community and the barbers inspired us to develop, gave us a way to reach this hip-hop, techno-savvy group with the potential to change their lives," Jemmott said in an interview with Upfront, the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing school magazine.
The men leave the barbershop with a "goody bag" filled with reading materials and condoms to take home to use with their partners.
They come back two weeks later, at which point, results from the urine samples are available. If their urine tests positive for STDs, the subject receives treatment.
That process repeats three, six, and 12 months later.
"They’re coming and they’re liking it and they’re enjoying the project so far," Jemmott said to the Free Beacon.
Jemmott said she intends to get an extension for the project that would allow continued research through fiscal year 2015. Whether Jemmott intends to seek further funding remained a possibility.
In response to request for comment, NIH offered a broad statement in an email.
"Only by developing effective prevention and treatment strategies for health-injuring behaviors can we reduce the disease burden in the U.S. and thus, enhance health and lengthen life, which is the mission of the NIH."