UN links dating apps to growing HIV-rates among teenagers

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When you throw an 80’s party, everybody breaks out the denim and the “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirts, but what nobody really wants to think about is the terrifying HIV epidemic that ravaged that decade. Since then, HIV rates have been in steady global decline, but it looks like a similar outbreak is occurring again, this time reportedly facilitated by smartphones.

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According to a two-years long study by the United Nations, a new HIV epidemic is currently going on among teenagers in the Asia-Pacific region, a part of the world where more than half of all people in the 10-19 age range now live. The problem is especially bad in regions with strong social stigmas against premarital sex, those lacking sexual education programs, and those possessing harsh views of homosexuality.

Although teenagers of all sexual orientations are at risk, the epidemic is hitting gay youths even harder. To make matters worse for the gay teen population, these individuals are far less likely to seek out medical attention because doing so would require them to come out of the closet to their relatives. In areas where stigmas against homosexuality are particularly powerful, this is putting sick kids between a rock and a hard place.

The origin of the epidemic seems to stem from decades-long sexual repression in the area that made casual sex nearly impossible and meeting new people with similar sexual interests incredibly difficult. The rise of dating apps like Tinder and Grindr have let interested parties discreetly contact each other, and suddenly teenagers are free to have a lot more sex. Sadly, the sexual revolution going on in the area is stunted by lackluster sexual education and social attitudes that make prohibit reaching out for help or even getting tested (many countries in the area prohibit teens from getting an HIV test without a parent’s permission).

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All of this works together to fuel the proliferation of HIV at an alarming rate. The number of teens known to be infected with HIV in the Asia-Pacific region is more than 220,000, and Unicef says that they believe the actual number of HIV-positive 10-19 year-olds to be significantly higher, since many are too frightened or under-educated to seek testing or medical help.

Bangkok’s initial reaction to the epidemic was to work with app developers and charities to produce pop-up ads in apps to encourage teens to seek HIV testing. The plan has not been effective, and the UN is advocating a region-wide overhaul in sexual education to fight this mounting problem.

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