AIDS Concern, the oldest HIV awareness group in Hong Kong, has blamed gay hook-up app Grindr for the highest number of new HIV infections in the former British colony.
In April to June this year there were 131 new cases of HIV in Hong Kong, the most in a quarter since records began in 1984. Of those, 65 were from MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) and 37 with source undetermined.
With a total population of over 7 million in the region, these figures are still relatively low, but China Daily reports that the Department of Health are worried that new infections could exceed 500 this year. And HIV infections are spreading fastest among MSM.
Spokesperson for AIDS Concern, Panda Cheung Yin-mei, told China Daily that Grindr ‘is one of the factors that are contributing to the record high levels of infections’.
More worryingly, Cheung says attempts to engage with Grindr in order to work together to send a safe-sex message through the app have been obstructed by the American company.
‘Grindr is a money-making software,’ says Cheung. ‘They have tightened monitoring of users and they don't welcome NGOs doing outreach on the Grindr networks. Once they find a phone number is an NGO number, they block the number so the NGO cannot do it again.’
In response to this Grindr told Gay Star News that the company do ‘welcome working with NGOs (non-government organizations) to educate and promote safe sex within the community’. But they do not allow NGOs to build profiles on the app as a vehicle for outreach.
‘As part of our terms of service,’ a Grindr spokesperson said. ‘We do not allow paid or pro-bono advertising within user profiles. In our experience, we found that the most effective approach is in partnering with organizations to educate users via events and targeted messaging rather than through Grindr profiles.’
Cheung admitted that another significant factor in the rise in HIV infections is the absence of sex education in schools.
‘The real problem is that schools do not encourage homosexual sex education,’ she said. ‘They should have it but I think there are a lot of social barriers in Hong Kong. I think the government could put sex education forward with emphasis on young MSM in schools.’
Wong Ka-hing, a consultant at the Department of Health's Centre for Health Protection agreed that education is essential for halting the rise in HIV infections.
‘If safe sex can be taught at an early age, it is useful for future protection,’ Wong said. ‘Interestingly, from the surveys we have done, we found that condom use when an MSM first has sex is correlated with consistent condom use in future.’