[DAR ES SALAAM] Tanzanian researchers will investigate whether mobile phone technology can be used to encourage safer sex among homosexual men.
The project aims to give homosexual men information about HIV/AIDS via their mobile phone's short message service (SMS) in the dominant language, Kiswahili.
Joyce Nyoni — the project coordinator and a sociology lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam — said it would start no later than May this year and run for twenty months.
"We hope to motivate the participants and equip them with scientific knowledge and skills on how to protect themselves and their partners from HIV/AIDS. So far I have informally identified 10 'seed' candidates who will help to recruit others. We hope to connect up to 300 homosexual men, who will be receiving at least three messages a week each on an anonymous basis," Nyoni told SciDev.Net.
She hopes to take advantage of the fact that about 10 million out of a population of 38 million in Tanzania are active mobile phone users, with another six million using mobile phones on an irregular basis.
Nyoni says she will write the safe-sex messages in consultation with HIV counsellors and will use computer software to monitor message delivery.
Group members will be allocated identity codes to remain anonymous since homosexuals face severe discrimination in Tanzania. Each message will cost the project US$0.05.
According to figures released by the Tanzania Commission for Aids, about six of every 100 Tanzanians between the ages of 15 and 49 are infected with HIV/AIDS.
Ananilea Nkya, of the commission, said that although the country's epidemic is predominantly heterosexual and affects more women than men, the project was potentially ''life-saving'' among stigmatised communities.
The project's outcomes, such as behavioural changes, will be measured against questionnaires rather than blood tests, Nyoni told SciDev.Net
Participants will also be able to send questions or make free calls to counsellors at the University of Dar es Salaam, she said.
Nyoni is currently awaiting research ethics clearance from Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research after the US-based Foundation for AIDS Research announced a grant of US$114,000.