By: Lunga Memela (Communications Engagement Lead)
In full support of the survey, from left: Professor Khangelani Zuma (HSRC), Professor Sizulu Moyo (HSRC), Dr Mamosa Tshabalala (Acting Chief Director, Strategic Health Programmes, Provincial Department of Health), Consul-General Anne Linnee (Principal Officer for the U.S. Consulate General in Durban), Grace Mufamadi (Manager QA HIV Programmes, eThekwini Municipal Health Unit), and Dr John Blandford (Country Director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, South Africa).
The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) together with its partners, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), the University of Cape Town (UCT), and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), were pleased to announce that the Sixth South African National HIV, Behavioural & Health Survey (SABSSM VI) – an extensive study originating from global efforts to stop the spread of HIV – is now under way in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
The study was launched in the province on Tuesday, 15 February 2022, by the Principal Officer for the U.S. Consulate General in Durban, Consul-General Anne Linnee, who reminded those present that South Africa remains the global epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic (with an estimated 7.8 million infected population), and KZN reporting the highest number of infections among all nine of the country's provinces – at an estimated 2 million.
The event presented a platform for the media to engage the study's Principal Investigators, HSRC scientists, and leadership from CDC South Africa, KZN's Department of Health, and constituencies in attendance on the significance of imparting clear communication about the value and relevance of participation in public health interventions such as SABSSM VI.
Funded by the U.S President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the CDC, SABSSM VI will be the largest survey ever conducted by the HSRC in all provinces, with approximately 93 000 participants invited to take part through responding to a detailed questionnaire and among whom an estimated 65 000 blood specimens will be collected for laboratory testing.
This study marks the survey's 20th anniversary, with the first survey having been commissioned and funded in 2001 by former South African President Nelson Mandela through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
SABSSM VI is a population-based, cross-sectional survey which will provide information at a national, provincial and district level on: HIV incidence; recent infection rates; prevalence in adults and children; antiretroviral treatment (ART) exposure; viral load suppression; and HIV drug resistance. The study will assess progress made towards the achievement of the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets, as well as the relationship between HIV infection and social and behavioural factors, among which is intimate partner violence.
Attendees at the event were given a visual demonstration of what the field-workers will be wearing when they visit the study participants. Citizens can expect to find well-trained HSRC field-workers at their doorstep, dressed with the study's 'Data Collector' branded bib for easy identification (as shown in the photograph above).
In addition to the HIV research component, the field-workers will offer HIV and TB testing services. They will also readily conduct COVID-19 antibody testing to estimate the proportion of infection at national and provincial level. "Testing for COVID-19 antibodies will be conducted on blood samples collected from participants," said the HSRC's Professor Khangelani Zuma at the media launch, "which will enable estimation of co-infections with HIV in some cases."
In her opening remarks, Consul-General Linnee noted that she looks forward to the day when an HIV vaccine is finally available. She emphasised the importance of gathering good-quality household-based information and data will contribute to the science of South Africa's HIV response, and potentially contribute to the development of a vaccine.
Consul-General Linnee also said that conducting the survey this year will be a difficult task, not only because it will be implemented in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because there have been a series of social challenges, especially in KZN, such as the unrest of July 2021 which hampered patients' access to ART and other chronic medication. She said that the United States government is in full support of HIV-related initiatives such as SABSSM VI, and highlighted the value of every citizen participant encouraging their family and friends to take part as well. "This is a study by South Africans, about South Africans, for South Africans," she said.
Consul-General Linnee's sentiments were echoed by Dr Mamosa Tshabalala of the Provincial Department of Health (DoH), and equally supported by the eThekwini Municipality's Health Department.
As a District Support Partner to the KZN DoH, the Health Systems Trust (HST) Programmatic Implementation for HIV/AIDS and TB Prevention, Care, and Treatment Services' (SA SURE Pro) project is proud to see the roll-out of SABSSM VI, with the SA SURE team having rendered support to the HSRC ahead of the study's fieldwork by offering training to Lay Counsellors on HIV Testing Services (HTS), especially pre-and post-test counselling skills.
Country Director for CDC South Africa, Dr John Blandford, being interviewed by SABC News after the launch.
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