Researchers have warned that the effects of homophobia in Eastern European countries combined with the rise of dating apps could have a very concerning impact on the spread of HIV.
An international team of researchers from Europe and the US looked at HIV-related service use, need and behaviours among 175,000 gay or bisexual men living in 38 European countries with differing levels of national homophobia.
They found that while men in homophobic countries had fewer sexual partners and were less likely to be diagnosed with HIV, they also knew less about HIV, were less likely to use condoms and are at greater potential risk of getting HIV when they do have sex.
Plus, the rise of mobile sex-seeking apps means that men in the most homophobic countries have increasing opportunities for sexual contact and are quickly overcoming the relative lack of meeting venues such as bars and saunas.
“Our findings are surprising as it may appear it’s effectively safer for men to stay in the closet in the most homophobic countries because their HIV-risk is lower there,” said Co-author Dr Ford Hickson from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
“But the closet is a difficult, shameful place which is particularly harmful to mental health and wellbeing. It’s also a place where men are kept ignorant, under-resourced and poorly skilled when dealing with sex and HIV,” he said.
Hickson noted that, “As the way people meet changes with technology, the homophobia that may have appeared to be protecting these men will now be exposing them to huge risk.”
Hickson said that condom distribution, peer-led group education, peer-outreach education projects, and universal access to anti-retrovirals for men with HIV are key to suppressing HIV.
“All health authorities could be commissioning these services as well as working to protect the human rights of sexual minorities,” he added.
The research was conducted by the Yale School of Public Health, Columbia University, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for Health Services, and the German Robert Koch Institute. It was published in the journal AIDS.