World STI & HIV Congress Discusses Technology, Apps, and a Gayer Agenda

The STI & HIV World Congress in Rio de Janeiro was an opportunity for over 1200 attendees to better understand how gay social networking apps can have a positive impact on the health and wellness of gay men around the world. Alex Garner, the Senior Health Innovation Strategist at Hornet, delivered a plenary entitled, “Know Your Status: How We Can Harness the Power of Gay Social Networking Apps to Educate and Empower around HIV/STI Prevention.” The 30 minutes presentation detailed the various ways the app functions and demonstrated the potential for better engaging the community around gay men’s health.

World STI & HIV Congress - Alex Garner, Plenary Session

World STI & HIV Congress - Alex Garner, Plenary Session

Garner skillfully detailed the various ways mobile technology can engage gay men around health messaging and campaigns. He explained Hornet’s Know Your Status (KYS) feature that allows gay men to openly express their HIV status within the app. The act of affirmatively declaring one’s HIV status can be particularly empowering for HIV-positive individuals. In fact, KYS allows HIV-positive users to find other HIV-positive guys on the app. This simple search function, Garner explained, serves to combat the isolation experienced by many people living with HIV. It’s one thing to know you aren’t the only HIV-positive person in the world. It’s another thing entirely to realize you aren’t the only HIV-positive person on your block.

The theme of HIV-positive men making connections is something featured in the Hornet marketing video Garner screened for attendees. The groundbreaking video entitled, “Making Connections That Can Change The World,” is one of the first pieces of marketing to feature the experience of gay men living with HIV. The motivation behind the campaign was to demonstrate an affirmative narrative around the HIV experience on social apps for connecting with other gay men and highlight how such connections can have an impact on people’s lives and the larger community.

Garner described the community impact of health initiatives on apps when he delved into the partnership between Hornet, the Health Ministry of Brazil, UNAIDS and UNESCO. Together they created the program “Close Certo”. Close Certo was a peer-to-peer based educational initiative that took place during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The program allowed app users to engage each other about their lived experience around HIV testing, treatment, PEP, or living with HIV. It provided an exchange of information, perspectives, and ideas that allowed gay men in Brazil to be better informed of their health options.

Garner also spoke of research as an additional way gay social networks can have an impact on the community. Research, supported by Hornet, about HIV prevalence among MSM in Turkey was published in International Society for Infection Diseases. Researchers found that among the 197 subjects tested 12.7% were diagnosed with HIV. That’s an extremely high percentage in a country that has been considered a low prevalence country. This sort of information informs community response and can be used to affect allocation of resources.

The stigma associated with STIs was a topic of great interest during the conference. Garner displayed a collage of past prevention campaigns that were fear-based and stigmatizing and reminded the audience that stigma is something learned, often from public health. He challenged attendees to shift the narrative around STIs and to closely examine the outdated structure of disease response as it can perpetuate much of the stigma associated with STIs.

The alarmist and anti -PrEP attitude was revealed during the question and answer session when a participant asked what could be done to make gay men more “responsible” when taking PrEP. Garner responded by simply stating that it is his role to provide gay men with as much information as possible so they can make informed choices about their health. He argued that gay men must be allowed to determine their own lives and that the free pursuit of one’s sexuality is a basic human right. The audience erupted in applause to show their support for his response.
Gay social networking apps have become ubiquitous in gay men’s lives and they are a resource that can be utilized to have a positive impact on the health and wellness of gay men around the globe. Garner urged more organizations to work in partnership with gay social networking app as it will require all of us working together, online and in person, to foster a healthy community for gay men.

The World STI and HIV Congress represents the biennial joint meeting of the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Diseases Research (ISSTDR) and the International Union Against Sexually Transmitted Infections (IUSTI), in partnership with our local organizer, the Brazilian Society of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (BSSTD-Rio de Janeiro). The Congress meeting is unique: it brings together the most prominent researchers in the field of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, to present new work, hear the latest interpretations of new data from world experts, and discuss the implications of these findings for health policy and delivery of patient care. Our last meeting, in Brisbane, Australia, gathered nearly 1,000 people to hear the latest on these critical issues.