The South African National Aids Council (Sanac) met last week ahead of the start date of April 1 for the new National Strategic Plan on HIV-Aids, TB and STIs, to review the implementation of the plan.
At the meeting it was decided that it was critical to prioritise HIV prevention among young girls and young women over the next five years, particularly in the first year.
“We know that the rates of HIV infection among women and girls between the ages of 16 and 23 are much higher than the rates of HIV infection among boys and men of the same age. We think that if we can have very strong, very visible, very effective campaigns to target that age group we’ll both be able to cut the rates of new HIV infections among young girls, but, hopefully, also influence behaviour so, as girls and women grow older, they continue to live and behave in a way that minimises their own risks of HIV infection,” said Sanac deputy chairperson Mark Heywood.
Heywood said Aids councils in all of the nine provinces would design programmes that reached out to school girls to educate and empower them to prevent HIV infection. Part of the intervention was to promote HIV testing in schools.
“The question of HIV testing in schools has been put very firmly back on the agenda.”
But cautious attention must be applied to how school-based HIV testing ought to be approached.
“We shouldn’t just look at HIV in schools, but it’s very important that schools have effective primary healthcare programmes and also deal with other causes of illness among young people which promotes health-seeking behaviour and deals with eating habits, sexual habits, diabetes and TB. It’s these sort of plans that we’re beginning to develop,” said Heywood.
Rhulani Lehloka, executive director of the Aids Consortium, agreed that HIV testing in schools had to be part of a comprehensive package and not merely an isolated intervention.
“It’s a health package. You would be able to have a clinic at the school with condoms, counselling for young people, and support for projects around health education. You’ve got posters, pamphlets, materials that young people have access to, that they can read. That, for me, is a comprehensive package,” said Lehloka.
Aids Consortium advocacy manager Gerard Payne said HIV awareness and testing in schools would go a long way to help the country achieve its HIV prevention targets.
“If we want to win this fight, if we want to reduce new infections by 50%, as the NSP is aiming for, we have to make sure that we use every mechanism and make them available to young people,” said Payne.
Inevitably, HIV awareness and testing campaigns involve the promotion of condoms for safer sex practices. However, the Department of Basic Education has remained opposed to condom distribution in schools.
Sanac insisted that for the programme to succeed, the department needed to change its stance.
“Sanac has recommended to the department that they should change their policy and make condoms easily accessible within schools. That’s the first step that we have to take. A related step is that we have to engage with parents and engage with school governing bodies to make this acceptable and understood by those bodies,” said Heywood.