Gays' reliance on Internet double-edged sword for AIDS control

Source:Xinhua Published: 2013-12-1 9:15:17

Wang Xinyu, a Chinese gay man, has pinned all his hopes on the Internet to find his Mr Right, spending hours a day in gay chat rooms and on social networking sites.

However, the 26-year-old government employee living in Nanning, capital city of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, admits what he has found is not true love, but one-night stands.

"It's not easy to encounter the right person who perfectly meets my standards. He hasn't appeared, but I don't want to repress my physical needs," he said, logged into a local chat room teeming with hundreds of gay users.

Like Wang, who refused to reveal his real name, numerous Chinese young gay men have gone online in recent years to get love or sex, which is private, convenient and inexpensive compared with their traditional venues for socializing -- gay bars, parks or public bathrooms -- according to Zhang Beichuan, a sexologist.

Wang can not live without chat rooms, but he also can not stop worrying about one thing: HIV.

Heightened danger

His concern is shared by health authorities and researchers who warn that the broad use of the Internet by gay and bisexual men in China, largely expanding their social networks, may exacerbate the country's already-high prevalence of HIV among MSM (men who have sex with men).

MSM have been recognized worldwide as one of the three groups most vulnerable to HIV infection, along with sex workers and drug users.

Government data showed HIV transmissions among MSM accounted for 21.1 percent of China's total reported new infections during the first 10 months of 2012, up 6.1 percentage points year on year.

Latest figures on HIV/AIDS are not available as of Saturday noon, a day before the 26th World AIDS Day.

In Guangxi, investigations carried out by the regional center for disease control and prevention (CDC) found 80 percent of MSM in the region's colleges use the Internet to find partners, said Shen Zhiyong, who is in charge of AIDS prevention and treatment in the center.

MSM who lead deeply closeted lives due to heavy stigma and family pressures tend to look for sexual partners actively and casually in anonymous cyberspace to unleash their pent-up desires, said Shen. "Their behaviors online may greatly hike their risk of contracting HIV."

Research at home and abroad has indicated a link between Internet use by MSM and increased risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex, drug use during intercourse and multiple sex partners.

A 2007 survey involving more than 400 Chinese MSM, conducted by the China CDC in Beijing and Urumqi City, far western Xinjiang region, showed that nearly half of the respondents, aged 27 on average, said they would try to seek more sex partners if provided with easier access to the Internet.

In addition, Shen also warned that gay chat rooms, websites and instant messaging tools have opened opportunities for the HIV-positive intending to maliciously spread the virus, helping them reach out to more potential victims.

Nevertheless, Zhang Beichuan believed more and more MSM would stop promiscuity on the Internet.

"Many gay men told me they had been simply fed up with looking for sex online after doing so for some time. Some who have found their love also said they would ditch casual sex," he said.

New weapon

Blamed for heightening HIV infection risks among MSM, the Internet, however, has increasingly been utilized as a powerful tool to battle the incurable virus and deliver help to the vulnerable group.

Zhang spoke highly of an online system established by China CDC to support real-time reporting of infectious diseases, including AIDS. Launched in 2004, the system covers all county-level CDC branches and hospitals today.

Furthermore, health authorities across the country have also set up websites or created webpages to spread HIV/AIDS-related knowledge. But many visitors to the sites complain that they feel like reading textbooks -- abstruse and dry.

In this regard, Internet-savvy grassroots nonprofit organizations, many run by gay volunteers, seem more competent, taking full advantage of online resources to raise safety awareness among MSM.

Tianjin Deep Blue Working Group launched AIDS intervention services on the Internet in 2006 by posting easy-to-read articles, providing counselling and calling for on-site HIV testing in local QQ groups, which support group chat among users of QQ, China's most popular instant messaging tool.

Yang Jie, who heads the group, said the organization's online services had reached about 20,000 MSM over the past two years. Yang is a 2013 winner of the Barry & Martin's Prize, a British award annually honored to outstanding contributors to China's AIDS education, prevention and care.

"When talking to them online or writing postings, we try our best to avoid using jargon, such as the abbreviation VCT, which stands for Voluntary Counselling and Testing. We also abandon empty slogans like 'Please test for HIV', because it's more important to explain why and how, " said Yang.

Adapting to the ever-changing Internet technology, some organizations have revolutionized their approaches to deliver services.

For example, Shanghai Qing'ai, set up in 2010, opened a shop on Taobao, China's largest e-commerce platform, allowing buyers to get 14 condoms and 14 bottles of lubricants after paying only a delivery fee up to six yuan (0.98 dollar).

Lingnan Health Center in Guangzhou, capital city of south China's Guangdong Province, developed an online application which helps MSM assess their risk of HIV infection via a questionnaire and offers advice to help them.

Zhang urged more cooperation between health authorities and grassroots anti-AIDS organizations targeting MSM, suggesting the government purchase more outreach services from the latter that boast online expertise.

"For the gay community haunted by HIV, in my view, the pros of the Internet outweigh the cons," Zhang said.

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