‘World’s most ambitious HIV testing campaign’ launched

In a venture aimed at getting tomorrow’s leaders tested today, the Innovative Medicines of South Africa (Imsa) on Monday launched a university-based HIV counselling and testing (HCT) campaign called First Things First.

“First Things First aims to help South African students, as future leaders, to be responsible, get tested for HIV, know their status and commit to behaviour that will benefit themselves and their peers,” said Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi.

The campaign seeks to encourage university students to have their “first HIV test in the first weeks of first-year student life at university”, said Val Beaumont, executive director of Imsa.

The launch was held at the Wits University medical campus, and present to kick-start the campaign along with Motsoaledi were Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training Hlengiwe Mkhize and Gauteng minister of health Ntomi Mekgwe.

“This is the most ambitious HIV testing campaign in the world, and aims to counsel and test 15-million South Africans for HIV by June 2011,” said Beaumont.

She said this campaign was aimed at South Africa’s first-year university students. “It is not just another campaign — it’s fresh and it is contemporary; we are confident that it will have a lasting behavioural legacy among students to do things differently.”

Enabling positive change within society
Motsoaledi said there are an estimated 5,7-million South Africans living with the HI virus, contributing 17% to the world’s population of people living with HIV.

“Knowing your status is not the only prevention strategy, but it is the most important intervention,” said Motsoaledi. “We chose to reach out to students as they are our future leaders who can enable positive change within society.

“The risk of HIV infection escalates when young people go out into the world,” he said.

Two-hundred-and-fifty staff from participating organisations have been trained to test students on an ongoing basis, “ensuring a lasting legacy of testing in tertiary institutions beyond the life of the campaign”, said Motsoaledi.

The initiative also has partners in the Foundation of Professional Development (FPD), the United States President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, the South African National Aids Council, Higher Education South Africa, and the Higher Education HIV and Aids Programme.

Nearly 20 universities across South Africa have already joined this campaign .

Dr Gustaaf Wolvaardt of FPD said: “We are dealing with a group of people who are blissfully unaware of the dangers of risky sexual behaviour.” He added that the success of such a campaign would only be determined by the update of the campaign at a later stage.

Addressing fears and stigma
The objectives of the campaign are: to increase capacity and add to the sustainability of the HCT programmes at universities; to put valuable and appropriate information on HIV into a student context in video format and make it available to all who may need it; and to change behaviour through a pledge that those who have been tested will sign.

The pledge reads: “We, the class of 2011, pledge to know our status, to stop the HIV/Aids stigma and to contribute to the struggle against HIV/Aids.”

The 30-minute video, which is used as a pre-counselling DVD, tells about the sexual encounters of three students, and how they found themselves testing for the virus. All the stories are different, yet the message and lessons behind each resonate with the life of a typical varsity student. The video is not only entertaining but it is informative and educative, while it also plays a role in addressing the fears and stigma around testing.

Beaumont said students who participated in the campaign and signed the pledge stood a chance to win a Toyota Yaris Zen, donated by Toyota.

“We think it is good to incentivise behavioural changes. The lasting prize, however, is a generation of future leaders in our communities who are true to themselves and their peers, who respect each other and lay the foundation stone for an HIV-free society.”

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