HEAIDS at SAAIDS 2015: Training colleges to step up HIV and health responses

The 50 public sector technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges are the next frontier in the national response to HIV. Historically not well integrated with the health services, the sub-sector enrols some 658 000 students a year. Primarily because of their age, the students are in a high-risk group to contract HIV, as well as STIs and TB– and need accessible and relevant programmes to boost HIV prevention and improve health and wellness more holistically.

This is among the recommendations of a new study which researched the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour (KAB) in relation to HIV/AIDS, STIs and related factors among a combined sample of 6 654 students and staff at TVETs (technical vocational education and training institutions).

The study, conducted in 2014 by the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSCR), was presented today (11 June) at the seventh SA AIDS Conference in Durban.

Attending the presentation was Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, who highlighted the role of TVETs in growing skilled labour capacity in the country.

“We have shown great progress in enrolling more students into TVETs over the last few years. This is a vital component of progressing and expanding our economic competency and ability to compete in a changing global environment. From expanding this population as government together with the TVET sub-sector and all our partners, we now need to shift gear to provide students with support in their health and wellness so they can make the most of their studies,” said Dr Nzimande.

Specifically, the KAB survey explored HIV/AIDS and related factors that affect TVETs that need to be addressed in order to mitigate the impact of the HIV and TB co-epidemics. This includes: knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards HIV/AIDS and stigma; sexual behaviours and the scope of risky behaviours that may increase rate of infections; and effectiveness of existing HIV/AIDS programmes.

The researchers highlighted the following key findings:

  • Most of those who participated in this study seem to have absorbed key facts about HIV prevention, and care and treatment for people living with AIDS. But many could not identify how they acquired this information.
  • There was a large number of first-year students who said that they were either pregnant or had made another person pregnant. Most of these were not planned pregnancies which suggests that promoting and making contraceptive solutions easily accessible is an urgent priority.
  • Many respondents were not certain about the details of essential services such as post-exposure prophylaxis care for rape survivors (PEP) or ante-natal services and measures to prevent mother-to-child HIV infection.
  • Overall, the study participants had positive and progressive views about HIV/AIDS, but there is a group that holds certain prejudices that could slow down the pace of transformation and better health outcomes.

Commenting on the study, Mduduzi Manana, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, said: “Because of their extensive geographic spread, diversity of courses and diplomas on offer, their links to communities and easy access our young people have to TVETs, we are increasing our focus on this segment of the higher education and training sector. That means stepping up programmes to insure TVET students, and staff, can take charge of their health and thus make the most of their studies.”

“This new research adds to our knowledge of the health needs in the higher education and training sector,” explains Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, director of HEAIDS. “We began this research six years ago, when we conducted a study on HIV prevalence and perceptions among students and staff at 23 universities and universities of technology.”

Dr Ahluwalia says that the study findings are not all-encompassing and in some areas they suggest further questions to explore in order to come up with cost-effective and suitable solutions. These need to take account of factors and limitations within the TVET sector, such as administrative resources and campuses that do not have the large student populations seen, for example, in universities based in big metros.

Last year, higher education and training sector recorded significant achievements and milestones in addressing HIV, TB, STIs and other health imperatives: some 100 000 students tested for HIV and were screened for STI and TB; and two million students across 427 teaching and training campuses were exposed to seven targeted HEAIDS programmes: First Things First HIV, TB, STI testing; women health empowerment; men health; LGBTI/MSM; Future Beats youth development; alcohol and drugs prevention; and health curriculum strengthening.

“The fresh data enables us to better address the complexities of the post-schooling sector and with the Department of Higher Education and Training, implement solutions that allow us to produce high-quality competent graduates and artisans who can carry on South Africa’s social and economic transformation into the future,” concludes Dr Ahluwalia.