Health is in students' hands

Thousands of students from the Northern Cape Urban TVET College and other higher education and training institutions in Northern Cape today underwent HIV testing and were screened for STIs and TB.

They also received information, counselling, referrals for treatment and the entire package of health and support services that are covered by the HEAIDS First Things First programme – including the distribution of condoms, screening for non-communicable diseases, and sexual reproductive health advice.

This was part of today’s activation of the HEAIDS 2016 First Things First (HIV,STIs, TB) programme, undertaken by the Higher Education and Training sector and led by the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mduduzi Manana.

HIV prevalence in the Northern Cape is estimated to be 7.4%, a markedly lower level of infection when compared to the national average of 12.2% (HSRC survey, 2012). Challenges faced by youth in the Northern Cape include alcohol and drug abuse.

While the low HIV prevalence is a positive trend, it is recognised that the Northern Cape is less densely populated than other provinces, but that the problems faced by its students are similar to those of their peers elsewhere in the country.

Issues surrounding alcohol and drug abuse, multiple partnerships, teenage pregnancies and sexual and gender-based violence impact on the health of young people. More importantly, these are also the factors that increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. They impact on college and university through-put rates, drop-outs and poor graduate competency levels – thereby affecting the sector and economy in general. 

The Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training was joined by college, provincial and community leaders at the TVET’s Moremogolo campus for the event at which students accessed the above-mentioned package of health and wellness interventions as coordinated through HEAIDS.

Deputy Minister Manana’s priority is to address the health, wellness and graduate competencies affected by all the factors that limit the youth within higher education and training communities that have limited health resources and are situated far from the main metropolitan centres – such as the Northern Cape Urban TVET.

Championed by the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS programme or HEAIDS – which implements the First Things First programme – is a national collaboration. It is devoted to advancing health education and awareness of HIV, STIs, TB and other related health and social conditions that set back progress by young people.

First Things First reaches across 429 campuses of the 50 public technical vocational education and training colleges (TVETs) and 26 universities to benefit about two million students.

Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Director of HEAIDS, said that First Things First is now in its sixth successful year. It speaks to the first priority of every young South African to look after their health and wellbeing.

“The 2015 First Things First data has shown that more than 175 000 young people were screened and tested for HIV. The programme was also a critical intervention to this population as it brought essential sexual reproductive health and rights services within students’ easy access.”

Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia alluded to the fact the since the Northern Cape Province is a mining region, it was critical for the HEAIDS programme to strengthen lobbying for partners that will screen students for TB, as there is a potential for it to grow as an epidemic in such an area.

“We begin this year’s push for better health with the commitment to improve on the achievements of last year,” Dr Ahluwalia stated.

Speaking at today’s event, Deputy Minister Manana stressed that healthy and productive graduates are a cornerstone of a healthy economy. Universities and colleges provide the ideal environment within which to improve students’ knowledge about HIV, other STIs and TB and other health conditions and to promote testing and services to protect and care for young people.

“We each have one responsibility above all others – to look after ourselves. The higher education and training sector is in a unique position to lead a movement that achieves this from the inside, as well as through links with all other stakeholders that provide health services in South Africa. The youth in these colleges are our future leaders and we can guide them to make the right choices. Ultimately their health is in their hands,” said Deputy Minister Manana.