HIV/Aids

16 March 2011

Aids tests come to SA schools

Hoping to improve treatment for youths, the government has decided to expand HIV testing in schools, proposing that all students older than 12 get checked.

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A tiny prick made a drop of blood on Nkosi Minenhle's finger, as the 15-year-old underwent an HIV test in a mobile clinic set up on her high school grounds.

A few minutes later a single black bar appeared on the test kit: She was not infected.

"I feel happy, I am able to tell my mum," she said, with a small, nervous smile. "And I know how to behave to remain negative."

The test was conducted by Mpilonhle, a charity that has since 2007 brought teachers, social workers and nurses to schools in Mtubatuba.

Only a handful of organisations organise HIV tests in schools.

Testing students over 12

Hoping to improve treatment for youths, the government decided to expand testing, proposing that all students older than 12 get checked.

Children's advocates immediately called for caution, fearing that students would feel forced to take the test, even if they weren't emotionally prepared for a positive result.

"We underestimate adolescents' knowledge. They are far more knowledgeable than we give them credit for," said American paediatrician Michael Bennish, who founded Mpilonhle, which means "good health" in Zulu.

"All adolescents, by definition, have elements of maturity and immaturity. With proper support and good counselling which is friendly to them, they can make a mature decision."

One quarter declined

About one quarter of the students offered testing by Mpilonhle declined to take it.

At Madwaleni high school, one 17-year-old girl turned down the test. Her face drawn and downcast, she said she had sex with an older man and fears the possible result.

"I am afraid," she said. "Once I know that I am positive, my school work will be affected."

Mpilonhle's top educator Gugu Zulu said such stories highlight the need for testing in schools.

"You can't pretend that these teenagers are not sexually active, when they are. They are no longer innocent angels," she said.

Half lose virginity by 16

Half of South Africans lose their virginity at age 16, and girls sometimes have relations with older men in exchange for small gifts.

"Because most parents are unemployed, to get things, the kids will go out with sugar daddies to get money from them," said Andile Zulu, a social worker for Mpilonhle.

That leaves girls more exposed to the virus and 6% of 12th-grade girls tested by the group were positive. When compared to boys, less than three of boys in the same grade.

Talking sex is still difficult

"Some mothers, if they are asked about sex, they can punish you or not answer you," said Victoria Makhunga, 18. "They will say, you are too young to ask about this."

Bennish says that's why it's important to provide another outlet for questions on sex, in individual conversations or in group discussions.

"It is complex to do (testing) at schools, but from our experience, it works best when it is part of a comprehensive programme," he said.

The challenge is that the programme Bennish promotes costs $50 (about R340) per student, and would need to target six million students, in a nation already struggling to meet its youths' educational needs.

"We always have to make sure that it doesn't interrupt the other missions of the school in terms of academic activities," he said. "But, point emphasised, academic activities are no good for a dead person."

(Sapa, March 2011)

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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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