There's a way to combat HIV through a mobile game

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 1) — In September 2018, over 954 new cases of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection were reported in the Philippines.

Nineteen percent of these, or 179 cases, were found to be at the advanced stage of infection -- where clinical signs and symptoms became present, such as severe weight loss, chronic diarrhea, persistent fever, skin lesions and the like.

The average age of those with HIV is 28 years old, and yet 28 percent of those newly infected individuals were aged 15 to 21.

Dr. Emmanuel Baja, a research associate professor at the Institute of Clinical Epidemiology in the University of Philippines - Manila, believes that more and more young people are put at risk due to limited knowledge about HIV.

Baja, who is also the principal investigator of the HIV Gaming Engaging and Testing project, helped create "Battle in the Blood (#BitB)," a mobile advocacy gaming app to address barriers to HIV testing, counselling and treatment.

"Battle in the Blood" (#BitB) is a mobile gaming application that teaches the youth about HIV.

It was first released on December 1, 2017 -- on World AIDS day last year.

He explained the game targets adolescents and young adults, particularly men who have sex with men (MSMs) and transgender women -- who are considered high-risk groups.

"The main objective is develop and pilot a digital advocacy game app to increase the number of people getting tested and knowing their status," Baja said.

It was the by-product of research on the sexual behaviors, including surveys on social networking sites for MSMs such as Grindr, Growlr and PlanetRomeo.

Baja said the inspiration came while he was doing a separate project in Tagum City, Davao.

"The city health officer of that city where we implemented that program, in Tagum City, Davao, said they're having problems with their HIV," Baja told CNN Philippines. "They were picking up young kids who are being infected or turning positive for HIV."

Among those with high incidences of infection are the children playing in computer shops, according to anecdotes Baja heard from the city health officer.

"And if they don't have any money, there's a lot of predators around the computer shops, they give money to the kid playing the game, and after the computer shop closes, the kid goes with the predator," he said.

Players have to go through 90 levels of "Candy Crush" like gameplay, where they have to connect similar icons together in order to either attack or defend the virulent monsters which represent HIV and other opportunistic infections.

For every 10 levels beat, players will get a glimpse of eight stories of different individuals living with HIV, and how they address their health condition and status.

"There's a mother to child transmission. There's a bisexual partygoer. There's a homosexual relationship. There's a transgender who's entering a beauty contest. There's an employer-employee relationship, and there's an OFW. And the last one, for the inspiration of the game, is child abuse," Baja said.

The game also allows player to use avatars that allow gender fluidity.

#BitB was funded through the Newton-Agham Grant of the United Kingdom's Medical Research Council and the Department of Science and Technology's Philippine Council for Health Research and Development.

They have also partnered with Klinika Bernardo, LoveYourself, and the Davao Social Hygiene Clinic to help spread awareness about HIV and the game.

And so far, Baja said, audience response was positive.

"The bulk of our respondents living in Davao are people living with HIV," he said. "Almost all of them are saying, this is a good game. Sort of a reminder for them that they have to drink their meds daily, and they have to have a healthy lifestyle."

Their team is also eyeing to bring the game to senior high school students to integrate health education and HIV science at a molecular level.

"Kulang pa rin talaga sa [There is a lack of] knowledge 'yung mga Filipinos. Education is the key," he explained.

However, he admitted that this is not the solution to solve the rising number of HIV infection cases in the country.

"It's not the solution to HIV. It's another tool to inform the public," he said.

#BitB can be downloaded for free on Apple Store and Google Play.