Testing times for Aids counsellors on campus

As the year gets off to a steady start, Delta Tladi, an HIV/Aids counsellor at the Tshwane University of Technology, is preparing for a busy time.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to Tladi at the university’s Aids Consultancy Centre. Housed within the university’s Directorate of Student Development and Support, Tladi says the centre works in partnership with the campus clinic to provide “pre- and post-test counselling to students and staff members who volunteer to do an HIV test”.

But it’s never an easy task getting students to volunteer to be tested. There’s still a stigma, even around the centre itself.

Tladi laments that “because it’s called the ‘Aids centre’ people are afraid to be seen around it”. This affects the consistency of the testing. Some students “come for pre-test counselling [and] go for the test at the clinic only to disappear. I’m sitting here with unopened envelopes of people’s test results.”

Another challenge is to overcome understaffing at a campus clinic meant to service more than 20 000 students and staff.

This means lengthy queues during the week when tests are carried out. “We don’t want to separate students doing HIV tests from the rest of the patients at the clinic for fear of the potential stigma. As a result, some students lose patience—while in the queues they become nervous and disappear.”

On an average, Tladi sees up to six students a day, excluding those still “in the window period”. This, Tladi explains “is the period of about four weeks when the newly infected person has not yet produced enough HIV antibodies to be detected by the initial test”.

Beyond generally wanting to know their status, students also have other reasons for getting tested. Hence Tladi “always asks why they want to know their status — often you find it’s because they have different sexual partners, they think their partner is cheating or they are not using a condom.”

Tladi notes that “most of the time it is girls who come to the clinic for testing”.

To raise awareness on campus, Tladi and her colleagues are putting together several HIV/Aids campaigns to encourage staff and students to get tested. Even the campus radio station, 93.6fm, is involved. It has partnered with the centre and the clinic to produce a health programme presented by Sister Sarina Klopper, who also heads the campus clinic.

“Students pay attention when the sister is on air,” Tladi says.

But getting students to Tladi’s office will take more work. Melusi Zwane, a third-year agriculture and animal production student at the university, says he has never been to the campus clinic for an HIV/Aids test—or any other clinic for that matter.

“I’m not really interested in checking anytime soon; I don’t want to be stressed,” he says.

On the other hand, Keketso Maseleng, a fourth-year marketing student, says she did get tested, though not on campus. She opted for New Start instead, South Africa’s largest non-profit HIV counselling and testing programme.

She decided to go to New Start because she wasn’t around campus that often last year, and although the lines were never terribly long, “they are discouraging if you don’t have that much time to spare”.

Like other students the M&G spoke to, Maseleng says it wasn’t an easy decision to get tested. “It’s always nerve-racking, because even if you condomise accidents do happen.”

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