Gay Dating Apps Join HIV Prevention and Treatment Education Efforts

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During the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, three gay dating apps were represented during a session titled, "Game Changers in the HIV Response: Gay Dating Apps Join Efforts to End the Epidemic by 2030." According to Joshua G. Rosenberger, Ph.D., M.P.H, "available data shows that HIV epidemics among gay men and other MSM [men who have sex with men] have expanded in most low-, middle- and upper-income demographics." Rosenberger said that nearly three-quarters of gay men have a Facebook profile, and gay men are twice as likely as heterosexual counterparts to have a Twitter account. "Smartphone apps and web-based social networks are quickly replacing and supplementing traditional physical venues," he said.

During his presentation, Rosenberger said that non-intervention studies have shown that, compared with non-app users, app users are more likely to be younger and better educated. Although "outness" about sexual orientation varied across studies, in all studies of men who met sex partners online, users were more likely to report multiple sex partners yet also higher rates of HIV testing. The majority of men from these studies endorsed the idea that apps and online forums were acceptable sources of sexual health information. However, one study of sexual health content specific apps found that HIV-specific apps were minimally downloaded and not highly rated.

Jack Harrison-Quintana, director of Grindr for Equality, discussed that company's efforts to politically engage its community of users. Messages Grindr sends to users are segmented by geography, HIV status (if users opt into the "Poz Tribe"), gender identity (a "Trans Tribe" option), race and age. "This allows us to reach people with incredibly tailored information at scale," said Harrison-Quintana. He went on to say that Grindr has had a huge commitment to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). "Latinos respondents were 10% less likely than any other racial group to be on PrEP, and one out of ten respondents who were currently on PrEP reported they had trouble getting their doctor to prescribe it for them," he said. Grindr created a plan to send educational messages in the U.S. in different languages in order to help with these findings. They are also partnering with local organizations and individuals in other countries to send appropriate messages in the right language.

The Hornet app has 15 million users worldwide, and 200 million messages are exchanged each week between gay men in 25 different languages. The apps' "Know Your Status" feature was the first of its kind among these types of apps -- and it has since evolved, now including "positive and undetectable," "negative" and "on PrEP," which gives users more information than just "positive" or "negative." Hornet also created an HIV-positive community, and users who select HIV-positive are able to talk to other POZ community members in a forum that is not available to HIV-negative users. According to Sean Howell, the app's founder, in April the European Centre for Disease Control and Hornet partnered to examine PrEP use among MSM, including access, health care engagement and likelihood of use. The study found that about 10% of surveyed users were taking PrEP.

Geng Le of China's and founder of the country's gay dating app Blued, discussed how Blued was working to inform its users about HIV and prevention. Within the app, which has 27 million users worldwide, users can use special features to find the nearest testing center. It has also partnered with NGOs and permits them to have their own profiles on the app so users can interact with them. Users can also schedule online appointments with service providers via the app. "The app has helped the Chinese government estimate the MSM population, and we hope that the government sees that, in China, MSM need more help," said Le. The app has collaborated with the Chinese government to shoot various films with celebrity presenters to reach a broader audience. "Many people say that gay apps made the epidemic more severe," said Le, but this is not the case as people would continue to see each other and stigmatization would still exist. He emphasized that "the internet is just a tool and we should make use of it, embrace change and use it to prevent new HIV infections."