By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Texting young women in Kenya with regular information about sex, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases could encourage more to get tested for HIV in a country where stigma surrounding the virus is rife, researchers said on Wednesday.
Some 600 female college students in Kenya received monthly text message surveys about their sexual behavior, and half were also sent weekly messages about HIV prevention, for a recent study by medical researchers and mobile research firm mSurvey.
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Two-thirds of the 300 women who were sent the weekly texts said they got tested for HIV within six months of the study, while among those who received the monthly surveys, only half reported going to be tested for the virus, the study found.
"Young women across Kenya lack knowledge about HIV, but many have mobile phones and love texting," said Njambi Njuguna, a doctor and researcher at Nairobi's Kenyatta National Hospital.
More than eight in 10 people in the East African nation own a mobile phone, up from just 10 percent in 2002, according to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, a U.S.-based think tank.
"Women like receiving health surveys by text message because it's anonymous and they can do it at their convenience," Njuguna told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of World AIDS Day.
Kenya has slashed its HIV prevalence rate among adults to six percent today from 11 percent in 1996, according to the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
Yet it remains the leading cause of death in Kenya, responsible for nearly three in 10 deaths, and 1.6 million Kenyans are infected, state data from 2014 shows. [nL5N10Z30Y]
Almost three-quarters of the women in the study had never been tested for HIV, and stigma and a lack of awareness about the risk of contracting the virus may be to blame, Njuguna said.
Most of the young women in the study who sought testing said they chose to visit health facilities far away from where they lived, in order to avoid being recognized, the researcher added.
The text messaging strategy will be expanded next year to reach up to 15,000 women in 10 counties across Kenya, having proved to be far more effective than carrying out surveys over the telephone, by email, or in person, according to mSurvey.
The Nairobi-based company said it was looking to expand beyond text messages, and had started using social media, such as Facebook, to send surveys on a variety of issues to Kenyans.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)