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Curious about HIV/AIDS? Just Ask Marlo

A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, January 22, 2019  /  09:22 am
Curious about HIV/AIDS? Just Ask Marlo

Don’t be shy: A user shows the interface of the Tanya Marlo chat platform, which allows people to talk about HIV/AIDS confidentially and receive information about the virus and related illnesses. (-/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

A new online chat platform is the latest innovation that tries to raise public awareness about the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

The platform called Tanya Marlo (Ask Marlo) features a character named Marlo who constantly reminds and informs users about HIV/AIDS.

“Let’s take a HIV test!” Marlo says through the platform, which is integrated with the LINE application.

Wearing a yellow shirt under a blue sweater, the bespectacled man encourages anyone, especially those who are sexually active, to take a HIV test at least once a year to maintain a healthy sex life.

HIV is preventable, Marlo reminds users via the platform.

The earlier the virus is detected, the earlier treatment can be administered, not only to improve the health of patients but also reduce or even eliminate the risk of transmitting it to their sexual partner. Therefore, taking a HIV test matters.

It is estimated that 48 percent of the 640,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Indonesia are aware of their status, according to the Health Ministry.

People who do not have HIV also need to understand HIV/AIDS to prevent them from discriminating against or stereotyping people with the condition. Being the subject of unwanted rumors is one of the reasons why many people are reluctant to take a HIV test.

With many people in the country yet to fully understand HIV/AIDS, Marlo is ready to serve anyone who wants to seek information about it confidentially.

He is aware that people with HIV/AIDS face stigma and discrimination in Indonesia, where talking about sex is deemed taboo. He therefore guarantees that any conversation with him is confidential.

“Do you want to contact me through LINE or WhatsApp?” Marlo asks.

The United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and developers Nimbly Technologies and Botika are behind Tanya Marlo. Together, they officially launched the platform last December.

“Tanya Marlo is a mobile chat platform that is friendly and for people who need information about HIV/AIDS. We present Tanya Marlo to answer all challenges faced by people with the condition in Indonesia. We utilize digital technology as a new way to interact with the young who might not be able to access information about HIV/AIDS,” UNAIDS Indonesia country director Krittayawan Boonto said.

Tanya Marlo is the world’s first chat-box about HIV/AIDS.

To make friends with Marlo, a user first has to install the LINE app on their mobile phone. Then, users need to add @TanyaMarlo to their friends' list. After that, they will see four features on Tanya Marlo; Consultation, HIV Test, HIV Info and Quiz.  

If users click the Consultation feature, they can chat to trusted counselors through LINE or WhatsApp. If users choose the latter, they will have access to the WhatsApp number of a counselor to communicate with him or her confidentially.

The counselor will be a friend. This is why users do not need to feel embarrassed about asking anything, including questions that people generally deem taboo. Users, for example, may ask whether it is fine to have unprotected sex if they and their partner are HIV-positive.

The HIV Info features articles, infographics and videos about HIV/AIDS, such as basic information like the difference between HIV and AIDS to the history of it, preventive measures, and treatment and care. 

The Consultation and HIV Info features will convince users to have the courage to take a HIV test. The HIV Test feature, meanwhile, will inform users about the locations of clinics that provide HIV testing services, including their hours of operation and the procedures they have to undergo.

In Indonesia, where people who are HIV-positive can access treatment for free, there are more than 5,000 testing sites and over 600 antiretroviral (ARV) treatment centers, according to UNAIDS Indonesia.

However, only 15 percent of people who know of their HIV status undergo ARV treatment. 

“The crucial element that is missing is the knowledge about HIV. Without the knowledge, people are unable to make life-saving decisions, such as getting tested and initiating ARV treatment to be healthy and productive,” said Krittayawan.

The last feature of Tanya Marlo is the Quiz where users can test their understanding about HIV/AIDS. The Quiz features multiple-choice questions that debunk the most popular myths about HIV/AIDS, such as how the virus or illness is transferable through mosquito bites, sharing kitchen utensils and using the same toilet.

HIV/AIDS activist Tesa Sampurno, who is openly HIV-positive, expressed appreciation for the launch of Tanya Marlo, expressing hope that more people would not be fooled by HIV/AIDS myths. 

He said living with HIV/AIDS was hard, while discrimination and stereotyping made it harder.

Tesa vividly remembers the moment his family created distance with him after he was diagnosed with AIDS in August 2007. At that time, they believed that HIV could be easily spread through touch.

“They refused to shake my hand. They even wrote my name on the cups and plates I used,” he said.

Hailing from Bandung, West Java, Tesa said he got HIV from needles that he did not realize were unsterile when he was a drug addict from 1995 to 2000.

The 34-year-old has proven that living with HIV is not a death sentence. He is still healthy thanks to ARV medicine that he drinks every day. He looks as well as anyone else. In October last year, he took part in the Jakarta Marathon, running the 42-kilometer race to prove that HIV-positive people can be as healthy as those who live without the virus.

“The keys to keeping fit are exercising regularly, following a healthy lifestyle, avoiding stress and the most important thing is to be happy,” he said.

UNAIDS is upbeat that Tanya Marlo will effectively educate people, especially the young, about HIV/AIDS.

The Health Ministry’s data shows that around 52 percent of people who are newly diagnosed with HIV are young people aged between 15 and 24. Indonesia itself is one of LINE’s top three overseas markets with around 90 million registered users. Around 80 percent of them are millennials.

The government has committed to end the spread of AIDS by 2030. By then, it is expected that 90 percent of people who live with HIV/AIDS in Indonesia will be aware of their status and 90 percent of these people will undergo ARV treatment. (hdt)