In HIV prevention – united voices are heard

The local AIDS conference in June this year was led by the youth – the same people facing the biggest HIV threat.

The auditorium was dimly lit. The participants sat expectantly in their seats; the group of young individuals had been introduced but had not yet taken to the stage. As part of the opening presentations at the 8th South African AIDS Conference, the Youth Plenary offered a platform for the young presenters to share their experience of and response to HIV.

This is day one of the conference at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre Durban, which ran from 13 to 15 June 2017. The young presenters set the stage for what was to be expected, a focus on the theme of the event – Long Walk to Prevention was “every voice counts”.

Before this presentation the chair for the first session, Lebogang Ramafoko, said, “The question for this conference is why have we not done better with [HIV] prevention – is it because we are bogged down by having to produce numbers? Do we even have the will to fight poverty and gender-based violence?

And do we really care about women, particularly poor black women? Do we care about sex workers? Do we really care about the LGBTQI community and men who have sex with men?

We hope that at this conference, in the different tracks, where different presenters and scholars will be engaging on the various topics about prevention, that you will find the answers… and that we will go home with the renewed vigour and renewed energy to basically prevent new HIV infections.”

Deenan Pillay presenting research in front of panel

The platform was set for the participants to engage on these and more questions. And to listen in on feedback about research conducted by various institutes regarding the many voices of the communities that make up South Africa. The focus of the conversation was looking to find the best strategies to combat the spread of HIV that will run concurrently with the new National Strategic Plan (NSP) on HIV, TB and STIs (2017 – 2022) launched early in the year.

The track discussions tackled a range of topics; the importance of adherence clubs, how to tackle the issue of adolescents and HIV, how media can be effective as an ally, and understanding issues among transgender people, sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM), just to name a few.

The conference focused on moving forward in the rollout of the NSP for the next five years, with a strengthened focus on prevention. South Africa has, as of last year, adopted the UNAIDS 90.90.90 strategy. The goals set here are that 90% of people who are HIV positive are diagnosed, 90% of those diagnosed are put on antiretrovirals and those who are undergoing treatment 90% will be virally suppressed. This strategy is based on the principal of testing and treating immediately regardless of CD4 count. This, it is hoped, will lead to a reduction of HIV transmissions.

Also included in the NSP is availability of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PreP). The pill to be taken orally is known as Truvada. The rollout programme was first geared towards sex workers who tested negative and can take the pill as a prevention method. Also included in the rollout were MSMs.

Protesting group baring placards against chairperson of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC)

The conference was not without its share of controversy. The first laid a platform for what other underlying issues still needed to be addressed if all voices were to be heard. When Steve Letsike, co-chairperson of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), was addressing the plenary, a group of people clad in Treatment Action Campaign regalia took to the front of the stage, with placards bearing the phrase “No Confidence in SANAC”.

On that dimly lit stage, the sound of a beating drum rang throughout the auditorium. In the darkness the outline of white T-shirts could be seen – the young people had taken centre stage. They performed a variety of skits for the audience, raising a number of issues faced by the young. These included the reality and personal challenges of growing up HIV positive, the importance of recognising that we are all human before being a person with disability, a sex worker or part of the LGBT+ community; the need for parents and health facilities to share as much information for young people about HIV and sex, without any judgement or discrimination.

They expressed the necessity of the youth being in the forefront of all HIV/Aids prevention programmes in all sectors. In involving young people in organisations that deal with HIV when they develop new strategies. These and more formed part of a ten-point pledge that was compiled at the Higher Education and Training HIV/Aids Programme (HEAIDS) Conference 9 to 11 June 2017.

Standing back to back with her companion, the spotlight on them, Andile Mthombeni addressed the audience on Agenda Setting and Accountability. “Involve us in big decision making and don’t exploit us in the process,” Mthombeni said. “Help us. Come find us or we will find you. Stop starting new campaigns. This year ‘She Conquers’, next year ‘He Conquers’ and the following year ‘They Conquer’. We have enough campaigns. We need to reflect; look back at what exists. Identify it, fix it if it’s broken and work together. We need to hold each other accountable.”

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