Will going digital expand mechanisms to engage young HIV key populations?

Bobby Ramakant, CNS Special Correspondent
Joe Rich, Midnight P, Kent Klindera
With increasing use of and access to internet in developing countries, digital tools provide another added way to engage HIV key populations, particularly young people. Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM) is managing an initiative in few South East Asian cities such as Bangkok (Thailand), Chengdu (China), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Jakarta (Indonesia), Manila (Philippines), and Yangon (Myanmar) to use digital tools to encourage young men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people to test, and opt for repeated HIV testing regularly. Initial pilot is being done in Bangkok (TestBKK) since April 2014.

Midnight Poonkasetwattana, Executive Director of APCOM, said at a session before XX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) opened in Melbourne, Australia: “one out of three MSM in Bangkok are estimated to be HIV positive. That is why it is very important to engage them, especially the young MSM and transgender people in Bangkok, to not only opt for HIV testing but also to give them a friendly and good enough experience while coming for HIV testing for the first time, that they feel comfortable to come back again for repeated testing periodically.”

Midnight Poonkasetwattana
APCOM used a range of social media tools such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Grindr, Jack’d, hornet, etc to communicate with the young MSM and transgender people.

Most importantly the messaging was done by the young as well! Via focussed group discussions with young MSM and transgender people, APCOM helped develop the communication messaging for this initiative. It is important to communicate in the language which the young MSM and transgender could easily relate to. Not just communication messaging but visual imagery and colour schemes too were chosen by the young.

TestBKK’s video channel on YouTube gained popularity among the young. One of their videos is nearing a million views for instance, with 634 subscribers. As per the analytics of YouTube, TestBKK’s video channel is visited by 83% males, 20% of them are between 25-34 years and 16% of them 18-24 years.

Likewise TestBKK’s Facebook page has close to 1,500 followers, 898 of which come from Bangkok and 36% are aged between 18-24 years.

TestBKK’s website has a reasonable traffic too with 46,556 page-views, 88% of which come from people in Thailand.

The campaign, TestBKK, is successful because of its partnership approach. It has partnered well with communities on the ground, government agencies, private sector and HIV testing clinics. The campaign also got support from UNAIDS Regional Support Team in Asia and the Pacific, PSI Thailand, Silom Community Clinic, among others.

Looking ahead, Midnight said that in phase II of this TestBKK campaign in future, community outreach programme will be the hallmark to get people come for HIV testing in a broader men’s health event where they may also get their skin, BMI tests done among others. The communication messaging will be around health in general and not just HIV. In next two years, APCOM aims to roll similar initiatives in other cities such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Jakarta in Indonesia. APCOM is pushing the hashtag #StepUp4MSM on Twitter at AIDS 2014.

Digital tools have also been used in other programmes. Joe Rich from New Zealand AIDS Foundation uses digital media to engage young MSM. One in five gay men are living with HIV in Auckland. Studies have shown that men who use condoms for first time during anal sex are twice as likely to continue using condoms over the course of their lives, said Rich. Rich came up with videos for sex education in an entertaining way which can relate and appeal to the young. These videos get seen 100,000 times every month on mobile and laptop devices. There are other digital tools Rich’s campaign uses such as MTV condom locator application (App) for smart phones, free condom deliveries, among others.

Internet use and access both are not universal. Not every young or old person uses internet or have access to it and tools based upon internet. But internet does provide ways to communicate and engage those who use it. Using digital tools effectively is another mechanism which expands the range of mechanisms and approaches that are effective in engaging those in need of health services.

Bobby Ramakant, Citizen News Service - CNS
21 July 2014