Build Your Toolbox: Tech Solutions for HIV/STD Prevention and Treatment

Youth between the ages of 13 and 24 account for 17% of the US population, but 26% of its new HIV infections each year. 60% of those infected don’t even know it.

How can we combat this epidemic? With the rise of computer and mobile phone use, particularly among younger generations, many organizations are turning to apps and the Internet to promote HIV prevention. To see how digital and mobile tools can address sexual health education, prevention, and treatment, let’s follow a hypothetical person through the process of using a few.

“James,” age 17, is sexually active. As a young bisexual African-American male, he is statistically more likely than most to get HIV/AIDS. He’s had multiple partners, male and female, and he doesn’t always use a condom. (James is, alas, somewhat uneducated about STD transmission. But he’s tech-savvy, so he has the ability and opportunity to change that.)

First off, James attends high school in Washington, DC, where the Department of Health has a text messaging campaign to raise awareness of STI/STDs and remind students to get tested. They have a school-based urine-testing program as well, like the one presented at the YTH Live session “Advances in STD Diagnosis and Results.” James gets a text reminder to be tested, and he has noticed some strange bumps on his skin, but seeking help through his school means involving adults he might see in daily life, and he isn’t sure he’s ready for that much visibility.

Fortunately, for both James and any real person in a similar situation, there are other options. The most obvious might be to seek professional medical advice, but there can be many barriers to seeking sexual health services, particularly for those living in disadvantaged communities. Even with the new Tablet-based Sexual History Application (TaSHA), a comprehensive survey from the California STD/HIV Prevention Training Center for explaining one’s sexual history to a doctor, a visit can be uncomfortable and cursory at best, and further complicated by insurance issues. So James might download the new STD Triage app, which allows the user to send anonymous photos and questions to a staff of professional dermatologists. Perhaps more reliably, many local clinics are starting to use Sexual Health InnovationsPrivate Results service, which informs patients of test results in a clear, explicative manner, with suggestions and advice on what to do next.
HIV T cell

Given the resources available, what should James do if he tests positive for HIV? First off, he needs to attend to his own health, perhaps with the help of an app like Epic Allies. Though still in development, Epic Allies was presented at the YTH Live session “Stick to It: Tech for Medical Adherence and Health Interventions.” Based on interactive gaming and social media and targeted at young, black men, this app that will remind users to take their antiretroviral pills according to schedule. At the same time, James might also avail himself of So They Can Know, a means of anonymously informing previous sexual partners that they might be infected with HIV or other STIs. There are also countless websites he can visit to educate himself about sexual health, from the CDC to UC Santa Barbara’s SexInfo.org.

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From prevention to testing to post hoc education, there are a practically infinite number of resources with which the hypothetical James—or any real person—can take action. Some, like TaSHA in the southwestern US, may still be localized, but the very nature of digital tools allows them to quickly spread to hospitals, clinics, and smartphones nationwide once their effectiveness is proven.

More ideas for HIV prevention, education and treatment will discussed this Wednesday, June 25, in @YTHorg‘s live Twitter chat. Join us from 10:30 to 11:30am PT with the hashtag #YTHHIV and talk to experts from AIDS.gov, the Sexual Health Coalition and more, as well as young organizers like Ebony Section, program manager of Planned Parenthood’s TeenRISE!. Too many young people are getting sick; it’s time to grab every tool we have and do something about it.

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Statistics courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Image by defenceWeb and NAID


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