The first time Quezon City-based 22-year-old Xander* “met” a person openly living with HIV was through a gay geosocial networking app. “He ‘advertised’ in his profile that he lives with HIV,” Xander recalled, adding that “this surprised me because he didn’t hide his HIV status, as I expected people living with HIV (PLHIV) would.”
After a chat, it was this HIV-positive person who encouraged Xander to also get himself tested. “Not that I may have HIV,” Xander said sheepishly, “but as he said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather know?’”
As it turned out, that person Xander was chatting with was also a peer educator, who encourages other men who have sex with men (MSM) to get themselves tested for HIV. That same person eventually accompanied Xander to a nearby social hygiene clinic (SHC), “providing not just information about HIV, but – I suppose – a hand I knew I’d need whatever the test result may be,” Xander said.
Xander’s experience – i.e. “Chatting to pick up, getting laid… and getting tested for HIV,” he laughed – highlights the continuing evolution of the use of gay geosocial networking apps. And this is even if the latter (that is, with it serving as a tool for change) often overshadowed by the former (i.e. hooking up).
In June 2017, the Department of Health’s (DOH) HIV/AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP) reported 1,013 new HIV cases in the country, bringing the total reported cases from January 1984 (when the first HIV case was reported) until June 2017 to 45,023. Also in June, most (93%) of the newly infected were male. The median age was 27 years old (age range: one to 73 years). And half of the cases were from the 25-34 year age group while 32% were youth aged 15-24 years.
The number of people getting infected with HIV in the Philippines continues to grow. If, in 2008, the country only had one case reported to HARP every day, it now has 30 new HIV infections every day.
It therefore comes as no surprise that on August 1, the Department of Health (DOH) held a press conference to announce the undesirable news that the Philippines now has the “fastest growing” HIV epidemic in Asia Pacific. Citing data from the UNAIDS Report on global HIV epidemic, Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said that new HIV cases among Filipinos more than doubled from 4,300 in 2010 to 10,500 in 2016, so that the Philippines “has become one of eight countries that account for more than 85% of new HIV infections in the region.”
Most of these new infections occur in 117 “high burden areas”, including the National Capital Region (NCR), Rizal, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Bulacan, Cebu, Davao, Tagum, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Zamboanga, General Santos City, Koronadal, Butuan, Iloilo, Bacolod, Puerto Princesa, Tacloban, Naga, Lucena, Angeles, Mabalacat, Tarlac, San Fernando, Cabanatuan, Olongapo, and Baguio.
And most of these new infections involve the young, particularly men who have sex with men (MSM), who start engaging in risky sexual behaviors at a tender age, with the first sexual encounter happening at 16 years old.
The trickier part comes with the finger pointing on who (or what) to blame.
And here, a big chunk of the supposed culpability is pointed to access to Internet and social media, as well as use of new information technologies, often cited as among the most flagrant factors facilitating early sexual engagement among young people. This point has been stressed by, among others, the Commission on Population’s regional studies conducted through the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) and Demographic Research and Development Foundation (DRDF), using the data from the 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality (YAFS 4).
But with the talk about – or even blaming of – technology as expediter of the spread of HIV particularly among the young in the Philippines, what is not as discussed is how the same tool can actually be used to curb the increase in HIV infection.
IT’S BUT A TOOL
Putting the blame on technology may not be surprising, even if very simplistic. After all, it may help facilitate having multiple sexual partners and other high risk behaviors, but it is not necessarily the catalyst for these behaviors.
According to Evan Tan, country marketing manager for the Philippines of Blued, apps are among those that are dissed as “just for picking up”. But he thinks that this very notion needs to be reconsidered, with these technological innovations deserving a better look.
A study that looked at the acceptability of smartphone application-based HIV prevention among young MSM noted that over 90% of 12-29 year olds are online and utilize the Internet as a primary source of information gathering, communication, and social networking. More specifically, young MSM have been found to heavily use Internet search engines, gay-friendly chat rooms, and pornography websites for information on sex behavior, sexuality, and sexual health.
“We know very well that technology can do so much more,” Tan said, adding that in Blued’s case, for example, “we stay true to our mission of building a better community by spearheading (CSR) efforts.”
In the Philippines, for instance, Blued works with The LoveYourself Inc. (TLY), a non-government organization promoting HIV awareness and testing. Tan himself personally spoke with TLY’s head, Vinn Pagtakhan, to help the NGO set up a Blued profile. And now – with the help of TLY’s head of community relations Paul Junio, the NGO has a team of counselors who provided answers to HIV-related queries gathered from TLY’s official Blued profile (TLY’s official Blued account: LoveYourselfPH).
“HIV largely affects the gay and bi community, and… I believe gay and bi men in the Philippines could immensely benefit from education and other necessary interventions to curb the rise of the epidemic,” Tan said. And here, “a platform like Blued can be used as an effective tool.”
Overseas, various studies have already looked at the effectiveness of dating and hookup apps and sites in distributing HIV prevention information to gay, bi and MSM.
In 2016, for instance, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined paid ad analytics from gay-specific dating and entertainment apps (including Scruff and GAY FM), and it found that users on these apps were twice as likely to click on HIV prevention ads than they were on general apps (0.30% versus 0.15%).
A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases supports CDC’s findings, claiming that over 63% of participants exposed to HIV prevention information through online dating sites reported getting tested 12 months later. In comparison, only 42% of participants who did not receive similar intervention messaging reported getting tested.
Sexual Health also published a study that found dating apps for gay men effective in giving give out HIV self-test kits to men at risk of HIV infection, thereby reducing the spread of HIV. In this study, the link of the service provider that advertised in a gay app received 4,389 unique hits in four weeks, with 333 HIV test kit requested.
Similar scientific studies continue to be deficient in the Philippines, though anecdotes abound particularly from service providers on how tech has helped make their jobs better.
Ronnel*, 32, Xander’s peer counselor, has accounts in “more apps than I can count,” he smiled. In his profile in these apps, “I provide information about HIV and AIDS, and how those who want to know their status can get tested for free. It’s very straightforward… I suppose no different from the candid approach to finding partners nowadays.”
Although Ronnel also goes to various locations (for instance, bars or “eye balls” of “clans”), he claimed getting most of his clients mainly through these apps. “Perhaps the anonymity (also) helps,” he said, though mostly “these MSM are part of hard-to-reach populations whose major mode of joining the PLU community (“People like us”, a colloquial term used by MSM to refer to themselves – Ed) is through these apps.” And so for Ronnel, “yes, nakakatulong talaga ang apps (the apps truly help).”
APPS BEYOND PICKING UP
This successful use of app in dealing with HIV also motivated Blued’s efforts in other countries.
In China, Blued closely partnered with UNAIDS, WHO, the Chinese Association of AIDS/STD, and the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association to deliver health information, promote HIV testing, and carry out HIV-related care programs through Blued. It also has live broadcasts on HIV and AIDS prevention through the Blued Live feature, with each Blued live broadcasting program reaching over 5,000 online audiences. It similarly utilized the platform to be an online HIV testing reservation system. In 2016, 22,857 people received intervention, 6,362 got tested (of which, 30% have never been tested before), and 311 were diagnosed to be HIV-positive and who were able to get access to life-saving HIV medication.
Already, Blued has collaborated with NGOs, universities and international agencies to conduct more than 40 online surveys to explore the changing trends of high risk behaviors over time. Nearly 30 papers and reports have been published from these collaborations.
In China, “our long-term goal in the country is to establish an app-based platform for comprehensive HIV and AIDS prevention programs at national level, and to form national technical guideline by implementing scientific researches,” Tan said.
Outside China, Blued also collaborated with organizations in Vietnam, including with the ICS Center in Ho Chi Minh and ISEE in Hanoi. Meanwhile, in Thailand, Blued is working with APCOM, a coalition of non-profits and various organizations in the Asia and the Pacific, to create HIV awareness campaigns for the gay community. APCOM is behind TESTBKK, an HIV testing campaign that was adopted in the Philippines also by TLY.
Beyond HIV-related efforts, Blued supports LGBT-related endeavors. In Vietnam, for instance, it is a major supporter of the upcoming Vietpride 2017, which will be held this 22nd to 24th of September.
“We continue to look for more ways to strengthen our existing initiatives,” Tan said. “We believe that LGBT empowerment and the HIV advocacy are causes that are very important to champion for us, especially as members of our community are highly affected by HIV and LGBT stigma and discrimination.”
MORE THAN JUST A MEAT MARKET
Tan said that the impetus for the establishment of Blued is helping define its current direction.
Blued was launched in 2012 by Geng Le (a.k.a. Ma Baoli), a married former police officer in northern China. He secretly managed Danlan.org, a website for gay people, for 12 years. But his superiors eventually discovered the website, leading to Geng Le losing not only his job but also his family. It was this that drove him to create Blued
Blued now counts 27 million users (majority of them in its country of origin, China), making it the largest gay social network in the world. Every day, Blued sees active use from 11 million pax.
In the Philippines, Blued has about half a million users, with most between 19-32 years old. A big bulk of the current members come from Quezon City, San Juan City, Makati City, Banugao, Bacoor and Bacolod.
“Blued’s existence has been pivotal in shattering barriers for the gay community in China. Our vision to create a more inclusive community has led us to other spaces where we can offer our help,” Tan said. This is why “we are working with various organizations (to benefit) the gay and bi community. The seed to help was there from the very start, and not just grafted into our other efforts as an afterthought.”
Barriers continue to exist not just for gay and bi men, as well as other MSM (and even the other members of the LGBT community. In fact, over 70 countries still have laws that make same-sex relations a punishable offense.
For being LGBT, you can be sent to jail for 14 years or more in 66 countries (including Chad and India); and at least in 12 countries (including Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen), one can be punished by death for homosexual acts. A hundred countries (including Australia, Indonesia, Northern Cyprus and Russia) legalized homosexual acts; but other anti-LGBT restrictions continue to exist (e.g. ban on adoption and same-sex marriage/civil union).
For Tan, technology should be seen as a tool that can link instead of divide.
And at least in the case of 22-year-old Quezon City native Xander, this proved to be the case.
His (latest) HIV test was non-reactive; but he was encouraged by the peer counselor to get himself tested again at least after three months, “just to be sure,” Xander said.
He stays in touch with that same counselor, “not just if I need information – such as where to get (free) condoms and lube, or about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – but also to recommend friends who want to get tested.” In this sense, Xander said that he’s glad “na gumagamit ako ng (that I use) apps in the first place,” he said. “Sabi nga (As they say): ‘Technology can be your friend, not an enemy’.”
*NAMES CHANGED FOR THE INTERVIEWEES’ PRIVACY