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[NAYPYIDAW] Mobile dating apps may be fuelling a spike in HIV cases among adolescents in the Asia-Pacific region, which a new UNICEF-led study dubs a “hidden epidemic”.

At a time when immunodeficiency virus infections are falling in the general population, the two-year study released recently (30 November) found a surge of new cases among 10-19 year olds in the Asia-Pacific, with an estimated 220,000 adolescents living with HIV.

Researchers cited the “explosion of smartphone gay dating apps” as a contributing factor to the rise in new infections.

While most people under the age of 20 are actually at low risk for HIV, its prevalence is now very high in new urban hubs of transmission such as Bangkok, Hanoi and Jakarta.

The epidemic is growing fastest among young gay men. Other vulnerable groups include adolescents who sell sex, people who inject drugs and young transgender people. In 2014, there were an estimated 50,000 new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15-19.

“Young gay men tell us that their access to casual sex has increased enormously since the launch of the dating apps,” says UNICEF spokesperson Andrew Brown.

“Unlike internet dating, mobile apps are location based — they show the user who is available for sex in their immediate area, in real time. This can lead to spontaneous, unplanned sex and risky behaviour – for example, they may not have time to go out and buy condoms,” he notes.

“By connecting adolescents to a larger network of potential sexual partners, the apps also enable any HIV infections to spread further and faster.”

Brown says some mobile telecom providers are working with UNICEF to promote safer sex and HIV testing through their apps.

Further contributing to the epidemic is inadequate sex education that is considered a taboo subject, leading to a lack of proper knowledge about HIV prevention, testing and treatment.

“Many countries in the region do not have comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education integrated into school curricula,” says Niluka Perera, a project officer at Youth Voices Count, an NGO for transgender youths. “The downfall is that adolescents and young people learn a lot of things through their peers who may provide the wrong information on sex-related issues.”

Another barrier is the requirement of parental consent for HIV testing in much of the region. Only 10 countries allow access to HIV testing services without parental consent for people under 18 years old.

“Imagine having to ask your parents for an HIV test, and explaining why you need one, especially if this also involves coming out as gay, or revealing that you have been selling sex or injecting drugs,” says Brown. “It is much easier for adolescents just to not get the test. But this means they are not aware of their HIV status, putting themselves and their partners at greater risk.”

Adolescents with HIV also face stigma and discrimination, which can deter them from seeking or completing treatment. Fewer than one-third of the region’s HIV-positive adolescents receive life-prolonging antiretroviral therapy.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.


Asia-Pacific Inter-Agency Task Team on Young Key Populations Adolescents: Under the radar in the Asia-Pacific AIDS response (UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, December 2015)