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Can texting stop AIDS in Uganda? Apparently not, study finds

Information is power, they say. But when Google and the Grameen Foundation provided free information about HIV and safer sex to powerless women in Uganda, the program backfired.

That's the finding of Yale economist Dean Karlan and his nonprofit organization, Innovations for Poverty Action, in a new study (PDF).

With economics lecturer Julian Jamison and graduate student Pia Raffler ’16, Karlan evaluated the Google/Grameen program, in which Ugandan users could use their cell phones to request free text messages on a variety of sexual-health questions. Uganda has high rates of HIV/AIDS and low rates of knowledge about sexually transmitted infections.

Similar projects in wealthier countries have used text messages to help people quit smoking and manage their asthma and diabetes. The researchers hypothesized that with better information, Ugandans too could take charge of their health and avoid risky sexual behavior.

In fact, they found the opposite.

"We fi nd no increase in health knowledge regarding HIV transmission or contraception methods, and no change in attitudes," the researchers write. "Rather than seeing reductions in risky sexual behavior, we actually find higher incidence of risky sexual behavior, and more in fidelity, although more abstinence as well."

Why? People couldn't always find the information they needed. After an initial marketing phase, usage dropped off as people forgot about the service.

And then there's this: "we do have suggestive evidence that the increase in promiscuity was driven by men . . . while the decrease in sexual activity was driven by women."

Hmm. Bloomberg News spins a hypothesis: "Infidelity may have risen as women became more aware of the risks of cheating and insisted on going for testing with their husbands. . . . Some men resisted, leading women to deny them sex, which the men then sought from other women, Karlan said."

Filed under Dean Karlan, Uganda, AIDS
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