Technology and social media blamed for rise in HIV rates in Pakistan


While technology may have strengthened the fight against HIV and Aids in many countries, in Pakistan it has led to an increase in HIV infection among young people, health experts and activists have warned.

Mobile apps and social media have opened new avenues for social encounters in the conservative south Asian country. For gay men and male sex workers, in particular, smartphones provide a degree of sexual liberation, a way of connecting with partners away from the streets.

Yet many remain unaware of the risks of HIV, allowing the spread of the virus to accelerate.

HIV rates have jumped dramatically in Pakistan over the past 10 years, from 8,360 people living with HIV in 2005 to nearly 46,000 in 2015 – a 17.6 per cent annual increase, compared with 2.2 per cent worldwide – according to one recent tally. The social stigma surrounding homosexuality means actual numbers are likely to be much higher.

“In Pakistan, there has been a rise in HIV among boys and men, due to easy access to male dating apps, because of advancement in technology, and availability of inexpensive gadgets,” said a senior programme officer with the National Aids Control Programme in Pakistan Sophia Furqan.

Furqan recently helped to compile a survey of HIV infections in Pakistan, in which about 39% of respondents said they found their sexual partners using mobile apps.

In other developing countries, apps have made it easier to detect the virus and access treatment. But in Pakistan, public debate about HIV is choked by stigma, homosexuality is taboo and, as a result, information on sexually transmitted diseases is severely limited.

Yasir, 41, who wears his hair long and full, his eyes painted with mascara, started as a sex worker seven years ago to support his 10 family members. It took him four years in the business to find out what HIV was and that also through an Indian television show.

“As soon as I became aware that there was such a disease, I rushed to the clinic to get tested,” he said.

By then, it was too late. Yasir has now lived with HIV for three years. He has learned enough about contraception to discuss it with friends, but he doesn’t tell anyone he is infected. Other sex workers might spread the word to clients in order to hurt the competition, he explained.

“If I had known about HIV earlier, I would have used condoms,” he said.

Technology has also triggered an inadvertent rise in infection rates elsewhere. Health experts in the UK and US have warned that dating apps could lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, with apps like Tinder and Grindr making it easier to arrange casual hookups with unknown partners.

Add to that the perceived shame of both homosexuality and HIV in Pakistan and the fact that sex education in Pakistani schools is severely lacking, and the risk of spreading STDs is even greater. Only 8.6 per cent of men engaging in same-sex relations who were polled in the recent survey used condoms, said Furqan.

In Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, the few offers of HIV counselling are provided by private NGOs such as the Dostana Male Health Society, which works with the LGBT community and male sex workers.

Dostana gives out free contraceptives and lubricants, and will soon begin distributing pre-exposure prophylaxis under a Global Fund grant in collaboration with the National Aids Control Programme.

Programme manager at Dostana Raza Haidar said there was “no doubt” that mobile apps and social media had promoted the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. While he acknowledged that same-sex relations have always been possible, Haidar said apps and social media have made approaching strangers easier, particularly for men.

Gay relationships outside marriage are easier to conceal than heterosexual ones, which are considered equally dishonourable. A man and a woman in the same room will immediately raise suspicions, “but families will think that two men are just friends,” said Haidar.

Seven years ago, at the age of 19, Ayan started out as a sex worker to support his family. Ayan was a child when his father died and the oldest son. Sex work came to replace his plans of going to college. Two years ago, soon after learning about the disease, he was diagnosed with HIV.

Still, he has continued his work. For Ayan, apps and social media have not only made life safer by allowing him to approach customers off the street – out of the sight of violent police who often demand bribes – but are also good for business, even mainstream platforms like Facebook.

“Every app is a dating app,” Ayan said.

Some names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.