By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Inspired by the mobile game Pokemon Go, campaigners in the Philippines are using a smartphone app to send users to locations with condom dispensers in a bid to promote safe sex and break stigma to fight a worsening HIV epidemic.
The Philippines has registered the fastest-growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia-Pacific, according to the United Nations, with a 140-percent jump in new infections over six years from 2010 and young gay men and transgender women most at-risk.
To tackle low condom use, activists have teamed up with restaurants and shops to set up dispensers with free condoms in the capital Manila which users can locate through an app.
Led by Save the Children and campaign group LoveYourself, which promotes HIV awareness, the Safe Spaces project has set up 30 dispensers in Manila so far and aims to expand to 150 locations across the country this year.
"It's like Pokemon Go when you run out of Poke Balls, you need to refill at a nearby station. At Safe Spaces, you can see the nearest stations where you can access free condoms," LoveYourself founder Ronivin Pagtakhan said.
"This is an innovation, it has never been done before. Now people can access condoms safely and without stigma," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Manila.
The Philippines in recent years has seen rising incidence of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can leads to AIDS, although the rate has fallen in other parts of the world.
Most cases were transmitted through sexual contact and two out of three new HIV infections were among 15 to 24-year-old men, according to Philippine officials.
Philippines researcher Carlos Conde from Human Rights Watch - which is not involved in the project - said advocating condom use and sex education are keys to fight HIV but the Philippine government has "failed miserably" to do so in the mainly Catholic nation.
"The main hurdle has been the lack of political will to resist the deeply rooted opposition to these measures," he said in a statement on Friday.
In another attempt to fight the epidemic, a group of HIV-negative gay men and transgender women started to take anti-HIV drugs last year under a two-year pilot project.
The daily pill, known as PrEP, is designed to protect the body pre-exposure, rather than after HIV spreads. (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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