Click right for HIV? This seems to be the case for a growing population of young homosexual men who have contracted the virus from unprotected sexual encounters with strangers contacted through mobile dating apps.
Adolescents Under The Radar in The Asia Pacific Aids Response — a study by Unicef reported an increase in the number of HIV cases among those aged between 10 and 19 in the Asia-Pacific region. A large number of them used mobile-based dating apps to find casual sex partners. The report said: "The explosion of smart phone gay dating apps has expanded the options for casual spontaneous sex as never before – mobile app users in the same vicinity (if not the same street) can locate each other and arrange an immediate sexual encounter with a few screen touches."
While the apps themselves are not directly responsible for the spread of diseases, they are being used by youths to indulge in risky behaviour. "Young gay men themselves have consistently told us that they are now using mobile dating apps to meet up for sex, and are having more casual sex with more people as a result. We know that this kind of risky behaviour increases the spread of HIV," said Wing-Sie Cheng, HIV/Aids adviser for Unicef in east Asia and the Pacific.
In 2014, an estimated 50,000 adolescents aged 15-19 in the region became HIV-positive, accounting for almost 15% of all new cases in Asia and the Pacific. "We are convinced that there is a link, and that we need to work better with mobile app providers to share information about HIV and protect the health of adolescents," Chen added.
According to the UNAIDS 2013 report on HIV and Aids in Asia and the Pacific: "Five years ago, the Commission on AIDS in Asia predicted that if men who have sex with men did not become a greater focus of HIV prevention efforts, this population would bear nearly half of all new infections by 2020 and represent the largest share of new infections among key populations at higher risk. Five years later, overall trends of new HIV infection hint that the Commission's prediction is becoming a reality."
While dating apps are a tool for the spread of STDs, the UN suggests they can also be vehicles to educate users about safe sex and the need for regular testing. It was referring to a 2014 World Aids Day project by the Chinese gay dating app Blued that had a red ribbon next to every user's profile picture, linking to details of nearby testing centres.
The 2015 UN report that was released today (1 December) on World Aids Day, went on to list other prominent reasons for the spread of HIV among Asia's youth. Sex for money, lack of proper sex education and the inability to afford condoms were some of the major factors listed.
Aids is currently the second leading cause of death among adolescents globally. "The next five years provide a fragile window of opportunity to fast-track the response and end the AIDS epidemic by 2030," said Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS and co-convenor of the Commission. "If we don't, the human and financial consequences will be catastrophic."