Bringing HIV Prevention into the Twenty-First Century

U-Test harnesses social media, artificial intelligence, and geo-mapping to connect youth with HIV information and services

A young boy smiles in front of a HIV self-testing kit in Man, western Côte d'Ivoire.
12 January 2022

UNICEF’s U-Test initiative is re-imagining traditional approaches to HIV prevention. It uses the latest technology to provide young people with easy-to-understand information about HIV and AIDS while also linking them with support and care. The goal is to connect at-risk youth with testing and services that prevent the spread of HIV.

So how does it work? The U-Test initiative uses a combination of technology, artificial intelligence, and social media to inform and engage young people. By operating within the digital sphere, U-Test makes quick inroads with adolescents, who are encouraged to get tested for HIV. If needed, U-Test also connects them with support.

Specifically, algorithmic look-alike modelling—a form of artificial intelligence—identifies priority groups based on their characteristics. For example, the platform can group together young people from similar areas, with similar behaviours, or with similar interests. Social media is then used as a mitigation tool—WhatsApp, SMS, and Facebook campaigns deliver HIV prevention ads and messaging to the most at-risk groups. U-Test also gives these young people direct access to HIV information via an online portal.

In addition to sharing information and messaging, U-Test allows users to complete a straightforward, confidential self-screen questionnaire about HIV. This reduces stigma and allows young people to begin this journey in privacy. Those who are at the highest risk for HIV are linked with testing and encouraged to learn their HIV status. When appropriate, geolocalisation technology accurately maps healthcare options around them, connecting youth to the closest services. U-Test’s technology can also connect users with youth-friendly counseling and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, which has been shown to reduce HIV acquisition by up to 90 percent.

This targeted, technology-backed approach accurately finds and reaches young people at the most risk, improving efficiency when compared with traditional HIV outreach and engagement. The programme then takes these young people through a proven risk-reduction pathway, which follows an evidence-based package of combined prevention techniques. At the same time, U-Test provides UNICEF with custom, actionable insights—a valuable tool for health practitioners. It collects data in real time, enabling health interventions to become more closely tailored to users' specific needs and locations. This gives U-Test a distinct advantage, making it a powerful resource for precise, targeted programming.

U-Test is already creating impact in Côte d'Ivoire, where it has reached more than a million young people online  and  via  health facilitites. UNICEF worked with the government of Côte d’Ivoire to roll out the U-Test platform and, in total, 171 health providers were taught how to use digital technologies to link young people with HIV self-testing kits and PrEP. In just one year, more than 10,000 young Ivorians self-tested for HIV thanks to U-Test. The initiative had high uptake with first-time testers, likely because U-Test gave them confidentiality and flexibility regarding when and where they tested.

A young man smiles at his negative HIV result in Odienné, in the Northwest of Côte d’Ivoire.
UNICEF UN0484579 Diarassouba
A young man is tested for HIV at the Adolescent and Youth School Health Service Center in Odienné, in the Northwest of Côte d’Ivoire.

The government of Cote d’Ivoire is adopting U-Test approaches and integrating this innovation into strategy and policy documents across the country—another sign of the initiative’s success. Côte d'Ivoire, where only 50 percent of people living with HIV know their HIV status, was a logical place to pilot the U-Test model. But HIV reaches far beyond Côte d'Ivoire. In fact, more than 2.8 million children and adolescents were living with HIV in 2020. West and Central Africa bear the second highest global burden of HIV infections among adolescents at 25 percent. Many countries in the region—including Nigeria and Cameroon, which have similar statistics as Côte d’Ivoire—would be natural candidates for the U-Test platform. Both countries have the systems in place to quickly replicate the U-Test model and roll out UNICEF’s new approach to HIV prevention.

U-Test’s unique model—combining social media, digital outreach, and traditional HIV prevention methods—has the potential to reach millions. In addition to its youth-friendly approach, U-Test also adds accuracy and precision to HIV programming—targeting those at the highest risk. Through U-Test, UNICEF can help youth around the world learn about HIV and discover their HIV status.

U-test is part of the Maternal and Child Health Portfolio at UNICEF. The Global Innovation Portfolios align technical and financial resources to promising projects that can accelerate results for children in key focus areas, including Learning, Water and Sanitation, Climate Change, Gender Equality, Youth, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support, and Immunization. By bringing these proven solutions to more countries, UNICEF’s Office of Innovation strives to strategically and efficiently address some of the biggest challenges facing children. 

Continue exploring the Office of Innovation website to learn about the many innovative solutions and technologies the team is bringing to scale.