Youth HIV risk highlighted at start of new study year

The health of students is as much a factor in the outcome of studies as is access to tertiary education and uninterrupted studying.

As youth transit from school to the higher education environment, they meet new people and adopt new approaches and habits to personal and sexual relationships at an age where the HIV infection rate is at its highest.

The excitement of exploring novel territories is not risk-free though as HIV prevalence among South African women was nearly twice as high as men of the same age. This therefore means that they are vulnerable to acquiring HIV at this pivotal moment in their lives. The national HIV infection rate peaks at the age of 25, hence the focus of many HIV prevention efforts are people of tertiary education age.

The Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) commences its seventh annual campus-based HIV, STIs, TB and related health and wellness initiative, First Things First. It reaches more than 400 campuses of 76 universities and colleges in the public higher education sector. 

HEAIDS Director Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia says: “Last year, students across the country challenged the foundations of the South African higher education system and we know that this process will continue into this academic year. We recognise that it will impact on campus life. Along with this, students will grapple with their course work. These are doubtlessly major pressures – but their health need not be a cause of worry if they are aware of the risk factors. 

“Most youth understand that HIV, STIs and TB are preventable– yet these conditions hit thousands of students and stifle progress and prospects, possibly for life. We empower each student to take ownership of their health and future-proof their educational and professional success.”

Dr Ahluwalia is confident that all that students need to stay healthy and remain focused on the main objectives of their education is available on campus.

“Student-friendly testing services and condoms are available on campus. Medical male circumcision – available on campus or very near to it – more than halves men’s lifelong risk of acquiring HIV and many other STIs. Contraception and reproductive health services for women are also easily accessible and allow young female students to take responsibility for their own sexual and reproductive health. 

“For the students and staff who are living with HIV, having treatment centres on-site or nearby campuses means better health and quality of life and greater productivity – while reducing the pool of HIV and therefore new infections within our sector and community.” 

HEAIDS and the higher education and training institutions also assist in addressing other wellness issues that increase risk factors such as alcohol and drug abuse and gender-based violence.

“As we start this New Year, and prepare to tackle our academic, intellectual and professional goals and priorities, we urge students and youth to make 2017 a healthy year. The rewards will be both immediate and long-term as it allows for greater confidence to work hard and achieve educational and career aspirations,” concludes Dr Ahluwalia.