Spotlight on progress in student wellness on World AIDS Day 2015

Johannesburg, 29 November 2015 – Some 150 000 tests conducted, 27 million condoms distributed and two million students reached with HIV and health messages. These are some of the 2015 highlights of the national Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS programme (HEAIDS).

In a year where transformation in the post-schooling sector came into sharp focus, achievements in student health and wellness are seen as an integral component of positive change.

 Mduduzi Manana, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training said that a clear priority is to enable young South Africans who are part of the post-schooling education system to stay healthy in order to complete their studies successfully. Manana said: “Student mobilisations illustrate the symbiotic relationships between students and other constituencies in universities and colleges.

“Investments into the health aspect of student life and experience can achieve multiple benefits that extend far beyond the individual. They touch staff, families and communities. It is a mission that we must pursue with vigour.”

 HEAIDS’s mandate spans all 76 public sector higher education institutions. Its advocacy, peer education programmes and health services are available to the two million students who attend these 26 universities and 50 technical and vocational educational and training colleges (TVETs) across 429 campuses.In its annual World AIDS Day report 2015, UNAIDS advocates that strategies built on a location-population approach consider the nature of the HIV epidemic and focus resources on high-impact programmes in the geographical areas, and among populations that have the greatest need. 

“Tackling HIV/AIDS within colleges and universities – a hub for young people – applies the location-population approach,” explained Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Director of HEAIDS. “South African youth, especially girls and young women, are in a high-risk category for contracting HIV. That’s where we have been putting the bulk of our effort through the campus-based First Things First testing and screening programme and other targeted initiatives,” said Dr Ahluwalia.

This year, First Things First tested 150 000 students and staff for HIV and STIs, and screened them for TB and other health conditions. First Things First urges students to prioritise their health as they work towards building their skills and careers.“Our challenge this year was to ensure that the TVET colleges are brought into the fold of the HEAIDS programme,” said Dr Ahluwalia.

Many of the campuses are in rural and previously under-resourced areas that have inadequate health infrastructure. Dr Ahluwalia said: “We have worked tirelessly to bring condoms, testing facilities, family planning and health education to their door step, but we realise this must continue with greater energy and resources as we look into next year.” 

HIV testing has been instrumental in creating an entry point for discussing health and social issues and as such, the HEAIDS programme has embraced the need to ensure that basic health services are available.

“The distribution of 27 million condoms across the sector is a notable achievement. The UNAIDS report recognises the importance of introducing coloured and scented condoms to the South African college and university populations as a tool to reinvigorate condom use and overcome condom fatigue that had set in during the last couple of years,” emphasised Dr Ahluwalia. 

“Once the students know their status, and have the means to prevent new infections and to manage their health, they are more likely to stay in the education system. 

“This helps us to consolidate family structures from which we can work to strengthen the health and social status of staff and parents. This benefits not just the community but improves the throughput of capable graduates and realises investment into education,” stressed Dr Ahluwalia.

Gender relations, empowering women and young girls, finding ways to deal with drugs and alcohol and responding to the needs of sexual minorities is also part of the HEAIDS scope, said Dr Ahluwalia.

He pointed out that these are among the social drivers of the AIDS epidemic and have been highlighted by research undertaken by HEAIDS to better understand the needs of the student men who have sex with men and of student and staff populations of colleges.

“Looking into 2016, HEAIDS is keen to increase discussions with students so that together we can come up with more effective ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies, help students come off drugs and safely enjoy relationships,” concluded Dr Ahluwalia.