Turn to digital to increase communication with young people about HIV

South Africa has made significant advances in the mission to reduce the HIV transmission rates. We are known as a country with one of the highest prevalence rates, with a reported 7.2-million people living with HIV.

But South Africa is also known as the country with the biggest antiretroviral therapy programme globally, with 61% of HIV-positive adults on medication, and as the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to roll out a pre-exposure prophylaxis programme to high-risk groups, estimated to reach more than 80 000 people by 2020. The rollout of this programme included targeting students.

Young South Africans are seen as having a double burden of disease when it comes to HIV. First, they are highly susceptible to infection with HIV, especially young women and adolescent girls. According to the South African AIDS Council, young women have a prevalence that is four times greater than young men their age. Contributing factors to this include low decision-making powers in relationships, including on matters such using a condom. Young women between the ages of 15 and 24 make up 37% of all new HIV infections in the country.

The second burden is the additional strain of caring for family members living with HIV, who also lead lives that are disempowered and preventing them from being fully engaged.

But, the country has, over the years, rolled out programmes specifically targeting young people to increase awareness about HIV. One of the most successful projects is LoveLife – a programme that used TV, radio and print to reach more than 12-million South Africans. The programmes are most famous for propelling the ABC message (abstinence, be faithful and condomise) to drive the reduction of transmission.

The Soul City Institute, a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that used TV and radio to deliver messages about HIV, is known for producing and developing Soul City and Soul Buddyz. These programmes successfully reached people in rural areas (who are often overlooked and neglected in campaigns) and 70% of people over the age of 16. Brothers For Life, a national mass media campaign targeting men over the age of 30, aims at increasing HIV awareness and dispelling myths about the condition. It has extended messages about gender-based violence.

These various campaigns and NGOs have had varying degrees of success through the use of traditional forms of media to deliver messaging. But, the world is continually changing and with it our forms of communication need to adapt. Globally and in South Africa, young people have migrated to spending more and more time on the cellphones and less so on other forms of media. News and current affairs are read daily on Twitter, visual stimulation from Flicker and Tumblr and communication and entertainment on Facebook.

Basetsana Magosi, a nursing student at the University of the Witwatersrand and Dr Musa Mthombeni, were panelists at the #VarsityConvo conference. (Photo: Motlatsi Maomela)

The advent of social and digital media has presented a great opportunity for the healthcare sector to reach an even wider audience. The number of smartphone users in the country has been steadily growing over the years and is expected to reach about 25.5-million users by 2022. Unfortunately, this means that more than half of the population doesn’t have access to these services. But, for those that do have, plans need to be made to increase awareness about HIV and issues affecting the youth.

Many countries in the world have started to use cellphones to target high-risk groups for HIV prevention and care. The use of SMSes has been widely used to target youth to increase testing and reduce substance use. Social media, on the other hand, has the potential to reach an even wider audience — and communication can be tailored for one-on-one or one-to-many conversations.

Existing platforms can be used to encourage behavioural change or to gather information on patterns of behaviour. Digital communication allows for dissemination of otherwise hard to reach knowledge. Information is disproportionately available to some people and not others.

These are just some of the reasons that have driven the development of software applications such as “Ask Dr Love”, an app developed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is a high burden of teenage pregnancy and illegal abortions (abortions are not legal in the DRC). The app allows users to interact with doctors on an online interface and ask any questions related to sexual health.

Last year we launched VarsityConvos. It’s a programme that targets young people in institutions of higher learning to tackle the rise of communicable diseases such as HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and tackling gender-based violence. A conference, with a panel and audience, took place at one university to initiate conversations about these topics. But, these conversations were also broadcast through live streaming on social media with the hashtag #VarsityConvos. This allowed other people and students to take part in the conversations, ask questions and contribute from wherever they were in the country.

The learning from that exercise was that young people became more involved and were ready to learn, ask and hear more about the topics being tackled. They didn’t need to be physically present to participate in the conference. The information also lives online and can be recalled whenever it is needed.

There is still a long way to go to fully understand the potential to use social and digital media to reach the young people and the general population. Essentially, to tackle the epidemic of HIV among young people, we need to meet them where they are. We need to use the tools they use daily. There are numerous opportunities for health education for behavioural change, research and engagement. Mobile technologies, augmented reality, social media platforms, these are just some of the few technologies we have at our disposal.

Dr Sivuyile Madikana is a medical innovator and health advocate

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


Subscribers only

How lottery execs received dubious payments through a private company

The National Lottery Commission is being investigated by the SIU for alleged corruption and maladministration, including suspicious payments made to senior NLC employees between 2016 and 2017

Pandemic hobbles learners’ futures

South African schools have yet to open for the 2021 academic year and experts are sounding the alarm over lost learning time, especially in the crucial grades one and 12

More top stories

What the Biden presidency may mean for Africa

The new US administration has an interest and much expertise in Africa. But given the scale of the priorities the administration faces, Africa must not expect to feature too prominently

Zuma, Zondo play the waiting game

The former president says he will talk once the courts have ruled, but the head of the state capture inquiry appears resigned to letting the clock run out as the commission's deadline nears

Disinformation harms health and democracy

Conspiracy theorists abuse emotive topics to suck the air out of legitimate debate and further their own sinister agendas

Uganda: ‘I have never seen this much tear-gas in an...

Counting was slow across Uganda as a result of the internet shutdown, which affected some of the biometric machines used to validate voter registrations.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…