Tech Sex: The Role of Digital Technologies In Relation to the HIV Response

by Charlie Tredway

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This was one of the most exciting break-out sessions of the MSMGF pre-conference for me, as it explored the HIV response in this new tech savvy time, finding creative and forward thinking ways to reach communities about key messages of testing and sexual health.

First, Kevin Brian Rebe from ANOVA Health Institute in South Africa who spoke about their Health4Men initiative where they have created a low bandwidth site to be utilized on mobile devices with comprehensive HIV, Sexual Health information. Being able to message the page with sensitive questions and receive detailed non judgmental and accurate information from a panel of experts skilled in MSM health is highly valuable for the community who are dealing with barriers of stigma and discrimination in a climate where the South African HIV response has been overwhelmingly heteronormative. The average time spent reading these clinical answers is 1 minute and 16 seconds and in the age of short attention spans online I would call that a resounding result for people getting and processing the information they need.

Next,  Matt Avery spoke about eCascade, an enhanced peer mobilzer model in Thailand which was an incredibly complex and fascinating multi-faceted solution to not only providing the best care for the clients through step by step processes for outreach workers but also keeping people linked into the system and testing and encouraging a “pass it on” referral culture where people are  getting others linked into the system by using referral cards with QR codes, which the smart phone app used by the outreach workers scans the card and you have highly detailed information for case finding and treatment outcomes by using real-time data to adjust interventions. Through this process they were able to map hot spot areas where they should focus more energy and also track how the recruitment is going from their clients.

We then heard from Ken Mayer on a pilot program to deliver counseling interventions to reduce HIV risk among male sex workers and Asian MSM in Chennai India. In a country that has the highest (or 2nd highest) MSM rate in the globe these interventions delivered in an accessible and nuanced way are incredibly important as HIV prevention efforts for Indian MSM are lacking and face to face interventions for whatever reason (time/stigma/transportation/lack of anonymity) are a huge barrier to the response. This initiative uses both text and voice messaging as a means of dealing with any language or literacy barriers that may be at play and also comprises of Baseline evaluation, HIV counseling, and post evaluation.

And finally we heard from Andrew Tucker also from ANOVA who spoke about his Health for Men (afya4men) program where they harnessed low bandwidth mobile internet technology to provide localized and language specific MSM Health Information  in challenging locales in the HIV response (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania). This program comprised of a compilation of all of the sexual health materials and initiatives condensed and adapted for mobile phone use and translated into languages like Swahili with great care taken in these translations to negate language issues such as the Swahili word for lube is oil and yet that is problematic when talking about using water based lube etc.

I was utterly fascinated and inspired by all of these initiatives as this was real world application of the need for flexible adaptable and focused HIV interventions to target high risk communities and peoples in a way that works for them and not the stock standard approach we so often see people trying to implement and failing to gain traction when dealing with cultural complexities.