SONA 2016: focus on youth health welcomed

 This year’s State of the Nation Address (SONA 2016) offered South Africans good news in the form of government plans to expand health and wellness programmes directed at the youth, as well as renewed efforts to mitigate HIV/AIDS.

 The Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS), which was among commentators on President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address delivered on 11 February 2016, has welcomed the announcement with enthusiasm.

 “Investment in our youth is an investment well placed,” said Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, director of HEAIDS. 

 HEAIDS advocates that reducing the burden of HIV/AIDS is important because losing the health or life of a young student. This kind of loss makes an entire family vulnerable to various challenges, and saps South Africa of the building blocks needed for social transformation and economic development.

 HEAIDS is dedicated to ensuring that young people and all within our universities and colleges are equipped to prevent and mitigate the effect of HIV - both within the sector as well as across South Africa.

 Dr Ahluwalia explained that the implementation of comprehensive HIV/AIDS and health programmes at institutions of higher learning is a major part of government’s efforts to prevent HIV infections among youth, promote testing and treat more than six million South Africans living with the virus.

 The HIV policy developments in 2009 led to the world’s most ambitious programme to combat the virus. Key changes included making the antiretroviral treatment (ARVs) readily available to people living with HIV and stepping up testing capacity as an entry to prevention, treatment and support.

 In 2014, HEAIDS received a crucial boost when all the 50 public sector Technical and Vocational Training Colleges (TVETs) took up HIV/AIDS programmes that were already being implemented across 23 universities.

 In line with the government’s commitment to ensure more people have access to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, HEAIDS’s testing at tertiary institutions continues to grow.

The number of students and staff at universities and TVETs tested for HIV and screened for TB and STIs in 2015, in comparison to 2014, grew significantly (see graph above).

Dr Ahluwalia says that this is a notable achievement for South Africa’s higher education and training sector and for HEAIDS, as the figures show that the number of people accessing testing and care almost doubled in a year, with over 14% of the target group having been tested in 2015 alone. Among the provincial data First Things First, award winning HCT campaign in Africa, run by HEAIDS across all universities and colleges, saw a remarkable 400% testing increase in provinces like the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga which are badly hit by the epidemic.

HEAIDS coordinates health activities across some 400 higher education campuses and provides services to help young people remain healthy, HIV-free and productive. HIV incidence in this age group remains high, and a failure to address sexual-reproductive issues in places of higher learning could have detrimental results that filter off campus.

Dr Ahluwalia said: “It is our duty to address major public health issues affecting our youth. Our focus covers the micro epidemics of TB and STIs and other wellness issues that increase infection risk factors – such as substance and alcohol abuse. Effective educational outcomes rest on awareness and services that promote access to a balanced lifestyle.”

To achieve this, HEAIDS works with institutions to host activations that appeal to the youth and encourage them to improve their knowledge and get tested.

In 2014 some 370 activations were accomplished, with the number increasing to 586 in 2015 as more campuses were brought into the HEAIDS Programme fold.

Dr Ahluwalia explains the marked rise signifies that the higher education sector has opened its doors, strengthened partnerships and better co-ordinated its healthcare services to students and staff.

“It shows increased buy-in and support of the health services in the sector. In 2016, we anticipate 700 activations across the higher education sector. These activations will seek to draw huge numbers of students and staff to the health and wellness initiatives,” continued Dr Ahluwalia