Sexual health a social media issue too
THROUGH social media, we’re all contributors to mass communication. And, for millions, the quest for love is not only an absorbing pastime but a media event. The exploding popularity of websites devoted to matching soulmates for life can add health to happiness.
An independent study commissioned by the site eHarmony found that between 2005 and 2012, more than a third of marriages in the US began by meeting online. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of Americans who tried online dating rose from 3 to 9 percent, according to a Pew Research Center study in 2013. Tinder, arguably the most popular dating app, generates about 15 million matches a day.
It is safe to conclude, then, that any social stigma around online dating has been laid to rest, and though South Africa has been a late adopter, similar patterns are likely here, proportional to the number of South Africans with online access.
But that ease of contact may have one important drawback: according to the UK-based magazine, the New Scientist, it’s contributed to a flareup in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) across the US and Europe. Epidemiologists and sexual health activists attribute this to “a combination of relaxed attitudes towards safe sex and the easy access to partners provided by these apps”.
As journalist and author Shaoni Bhattacharya puts it: “Research is starting to explore the idea that this technology makes you more likely to change your behaviour, causing you to leave your common sense at the bedroom door.”
If so, the results are both predictable and unfolding – a trend that is likely to continue unless there’s some significant intervention.
Syphilis, once the most feared of STIs, notes the New Scientist, was all but eradicated by 2000. Now it has rebounded in many Western countries, along with gonorrhoea and chlamydia.
The report quotes a spokesperson from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV as among the health officials who link hook-up apps with increased infections: “You’ve suddenly invented a way of discovering where the nearest sexually available person is to the nearest metre – it’s not difficult for you to get with them.”
Bhattacharya also quotes Ian Holloway, of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, as asserting that popularity of dating apps has coincided with a shift in attitudes towards HIV.
It’s now seen as “less of a death sentence (than) a chronic condition that can be managed with drugs”.
“The same generation that is now connecting more easily using mobile devices is also less concerned about safe sex than the generation before.”
But the author’s indictment of dating sites also opens the door to their redemption.
Bhattacharya quotes a UK epidemiologist with a vision for using these apps to lead people to both health and happiness: “We need to find ways to allow users to enjoy the convenience of online dating apps while helping them limit their health risks.” The writer points out that some sites already enable users to disclose their HIV status. In South Africa, we can tailor relationship apps to take health disclosure one step further.
They could, for example, allow men to disclose whether they’re circumcised, or women to say whether they like their men circumcised. Both men and women could benefit from knowing the benefits of medical male circumcision (MMC).
Those benefits are manifold: it’s a once-off routine procedure conducted on local anaesthetic, which permanently reduces by 60 percent a man’s risk of HIV infection during heterosexual sex. Combined with other measures such as consistent condom usage, regular testing, reduction of sexual partners and delaying sexual debut, MMC is the closest intervention we have to an HIV vaccine.
If enough men in this country have MMC, we could see a collapse in new HIV infections and an Aidsfree generation in 30 years.
MMC also helps prevent other STIs such as syphilis in men and women. Considering that 91.1 percent of reported cases of syphilis in the US are in men, it makes good sense to promote MMC as a vital component of safe sex. It also reduces the risk of penile cancer in men and cervical cancer in women.
This is an important opportunity for Africa, as internet use on cellphones is expected to increase twentyfold in Africa in the next five years – double the rate of growth in the rest of the world. This brings an important opportunity for health education for the online generation.
In 2008, 42 percent of Africa’s population was under the age of 15, according to the Population Reference Bureau, which estimates that by 2050 Africa’s population is projected to increase to 2.4 billion people, making it the region with the largest population growth.
The same people who are most comfortable with emerging technology are at greatest risk from HIV. Social media, therefore, can help orchestrate the greatest social benefits in history.
To those dating sites who might regard MMC and sexual health as too delicate a matter, we’d counter that health is too important for such coyness. Transparent sharing on matters of life and death is essential to building enduring relationships. That’s something dating site managers could take pride in, while also providing important protections to those who use some sites as shortcuts to casual hook-ups.
The health-care fraternity recognises the potential presented by the “always-on” age. In the British Medical Journal, Professor Enrico Coiera, of the University of New South Wales, writes that there is “the opportunity to use social media to tackle some of the most costly, damaging and intransigent disease challenges faced by society.”
We can safely assume that South Africans who date online are a lot like their overseas counterparts. Here in South Africa, however, with the highest HIV prevalence in the world, the stakes are much higher. Online dating service providers then have a responsibility to help their users protect themselves.
As people are increasingly open to social interaction online, we have an opportunity to create the best love stories ever, right down to living happily ever after. It’s time to give the story a happy ending through mass media.
To find out where you, or a friend, can undergo free MMC: send a “please call me” to 0606 800 800 and a counsellor will get back to you. For more information about MMC, visit the MMC media and information hub at www.mmcinfo.co.za
Dr Teversham is Medical Director of CareWorks, an HIV management company
BENEFICIAL: Nurses conduct a circumcision at the Samsung solar-powered digital village clinic in Cosmo City, Ekurhuleni. There are many benefits to circumcision, says the writer.