Sex­ual health a so­cial me­dia is­sue too

Cape Times - - INSIGHT - Kim Tev­er­sham

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

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.

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