First Things First programme launched in Mthatha

 Today, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mr Mduduzi Manana, launched the First Things First HIV/TB/STIs and general health and wellness programme for students in the higher education and training sector at the King Sabata Dalindyebo College in Mthatha.

First Things First is a major programme of the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS). Now in its fifth year, First Things First speaks to the priority of South Africans to look after their health and encourages particularly youth to know their HIV status and screen and treat STIs and TB.

 HEAIDS is an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training and which, together with the Health Department, strongly supports First Things First.

This initiative will not only benefit close to 2 million students and staff who attend the higher education – but also their families and the broader community.

The need for such an initiative is evident. Over half of the world’s young population infected with HIV lives in Eastern and Southern Africa. The Eastern Cape had a prevalence rate of 29.3% in 2011, while the Northern Cape (17%) and Western Cape (18.2%) were the only provinces with rates below 20%. (Source: SANews.gov.za, 2012)

Worryingly, the same most-at-risk group has also been decreasing the use of condoms – which increases the risk of HIV infection.

Deputy Minister Manana led the charge for strengthening and combining efforts to prevent HIV, STIs and TB as he made the link between the health of students and the higher education and training sector’s throughput of graduates. The Deputy Minister said that “healthy and productive graduates are a cornerstone of a healthy economy”.

“Universities and colleges provide the ideal environment within which to improve knowledge about HIV, other STIs and TB and to promote testing and other services to protect and care for young people,” said Deputy Minister Manana as he interacted with students.

During the event, they tested for HIV and had screening for TB and STIs. The participants and guests also discussed health more broadly, including social, behavioural and gender issues that affect health-seeking behaviour. The 2015 First Things First drive is being activated across 429 campuses within all public technical vocational education and training colleges (TVETs) and universities, to reach out to a student population of two million.

Deputy Minister said: “Every day, more than 1000 new HIV infections occur in South Africa. Most are among young people – the very foundation of our country’s future – and most are among young women. We have no higher priority today than to close the tap on new infections. We must do all we can to treat and support people living with HIV and AIDS – but we cannot treat our way out of this epidemic.”

Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Director of HEAIDS, echoed Deputy Minister’s calls for leadership and commitment to boost HIV prevention and better health outcomes.

“Last year, First Things First helped over 100 000 young people learn their HIV status and use this as a stepping stone for protecting their health since they also received screening and if needed treatment for other STIs and TB,” said Dr Ahluwalia.

“HEAIDS has a community of two million students in higher education and training institutions. We know from previous studies that pursuing post-school education has a protective and enabling effect on young people – and hence it is our role to provide them guidance not only in relation to HIV, TB and STIs but also family planning, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence, alcohol and substance abuse. HEAIDS provides a comprehensive programme targeting young South Africans at this crucial stage in their sexual development. HEAIDS objectives remain to provide South Africa with a healthy next generation of labour to ensure national economic sustainability,” said Dr Ahluwalia.