Health workers are facing a new challenge in identifying and providing HIV counselling, testing or treatment to the high-risk population of sex workers, transgenders and men who have sex with men (MSM) with a growing number of them now looking for partners on digital platforms. The National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) records currently show 19,319 sex workers and 11,362 MSM in Mumbai, of which 703 and 232 respectively are HIV-positive.
It was in 2013 when health activist Rohan Pujario, attached with NGO Humsafar Trust, first realised that a lot of transgenders and MSM no longer scout the usual spots in parks, stations and public toilets. These were locations health workers usually visited to screen suspected HIV cases and link them to anti retroviral therapy centres.
“The easy availability of several dating applications has helped men interested in other men to find a partner. There is a dramatic shift to web portals with cheaper smartphones and easier Internet access,” Pujari said, adding they realised they were missing out on a huge chunk of online users who face the risk of HIV infection and are going undiagnosed.
According to Rekha Kulkarni, from NGO Aditi, floating sex workers and those who operate from home usually use WhatsApp to fix a client. There is no method of locating them online. “We only manage to tap brothel-based sex workers who live in clusters in hotspots such as Kamathipura and Sonapur in Bhandup,” she said.
“The screening and diagnosis of HIV has reduced not only because sex workers are more aware, but also because locating them on ground has become a challenge. NACO has asked to spread HIV campaign through internet now,” said Dr Shrikala Acharya, additional project director with the Mumbai District AIDS Control Society (MDACS).
The technological shift to online dating has forced NACO to begin ‘internet outreach’ pilot project with Humsafar Trust to identify, screen, diagnose and treat the high-risk people for HIV infection in Mumbai.
In 2013, Humsafar Trust itself started reaching out to MSM and transgenders through portals like Grindr, Scruff, Tinder, Facebook, Planet Romeo and Hornet. Over 11,000 have been connected so far for counseling on HIV detection, screening and free treatment since then. “Our records show about 500 came for screening after we reached them through these portals,” said Tinesh Chopade, assistant programme manager.
Online dating apps also offer these users privacy. The NGO has created its own profile to send personal messages to those who are online. Once messages on sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV prevention are shared, the counsellors refer them to ART clinics for diagnosis if the user responds.
“It is more difficult to tap sex workers because they rely on WhatsApp to fix clients, we still need to devise a solution to capture them,” said Pooja Walawalkar, from NGO Aditi. The NGO works in Vile Parle, Thane and Bhandup with over 4,500 sex workers. The city has 41,038 people infected with HIV of which 32,838 are on ART treatment.