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Tuesday 28 February 2006
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SENEGAL: Despite awareness campaigns, young people are reluctant to get HIV tested

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

DAKAR, 5 October (PLUSNEWS) - Sitting in a classroom and wearing a shirt, tie and perfectly polished shoes, Lamine, a computer science student in Senegal's capital city, admits he has no idea whether or not he is HIV-positive.

"I've never been tested and I don't think I'll do it anytime soon," said the 25 year-old Dakar resident. "I'd rather not know. I want to live happily and not have to worry about getting AIDS."

While the majority of Senegalese who were tested for HIV in 2004 were under 25, the total number of people screened was a measly 3,500, according to the Ministry of Youth.

"There is an urgent need to have more young people tested," explained Papa Amadou Niang Diallo who is working with the Ministry of Youth on a campaign called "Youth are getting tested", which will run from September 28 to October 8.

In a country where people marry and have their first sexual relations at a young age and where 90 percent of HIV infections are sexually transmitted, targeting youth needs to be a priority, said Diallo.

A 2004 sentinel study of pregnant women found an HIV infection rate of 1.5 percent, a low rate by West African standards. What is worrying, however, is that people aged between 15 and 24 accounted for half of all new cases, according to Diallo.

Given this reality, Senegalese youths as young as 15 can be tested without their guardian's authorisation despite laws requiring all under 18 year olds to be accompanied for blood tests. And the number of clinics offering free and anonymous testing continues to increase, with at least 10 in Dakar and 65 nationwide.


Unfortunately, young people are still afraid to get tested. That's because of how the message gets sent out and interpreted, according to Alioune Badara Sow, programme head at the National Alliance Against AIDS (ANCS), an umbrella group of organisations involved in AIDS awareness.

"From the start, this epidemic was demonised and involved a lot of stigmatisation," he told IRIN.

Max, 24, first learned about HIV through a movie at her neighbourhood cultural centre. "It scared me," she said. "Especially seeing all the symptoms of AIDS."

Since seeing that film, she has been a lot more careful but admitted that she has never been tested because she didn't know how to go about it.

The ANCS is trying to address this problem by providing local health workers and the public with training and discussion forums to enable them to answer all the questions on HIV/AIDS, including where and how to get tested.

But it's not just the experts who are speaking up. A number of Senegalese rappers, who have the ear of the country's youth in a way that health officials can only dream of, are using less conventional methods of getting the message out.

One of them, Keyti, believes that raising awareness shouldn't be left to health workers, NGOs and government officials.

"Sure, they talk about HIV/AIDS but not in the right way," said the local artist who contributed to last year's "Africa Without AIDS", a compilation put together by a group of West African musicians. "Around here, AIDS is considered a great source of shame because it rhymes with low morals."

His fellow rapper-cum-AIDS activist, Khouman, helped organise last weekend's "12 Hours of Reggae" festival on a beach in Dakar. The event had health workers on hand to provide testing to audience members, about 100 of whom took them up on the offer.

Like Keyti, Khouman worries about the kind of information that's getting to a young public. "It's important to show that people living with the virus can look just like you and me," he said.


Daouda Diouf, HIV/AIDS programme director at the Senegalese health organisation Enda-Sante, believes a serious obstacle to a better-informed public is the reticence of many HIV-positive people to talk about their experiences.

"People with HIV and the organisations that represent them aren't doing their part," he said. "Their members rarely speak publicly."

And role models are also lacking, according to the ANCS's Sow. As evidence, he pointed to the fact that Senegalese celebrities such as the singer Youssou N'Dour, football star El Hadj Diouf and even President Abdoulaye Wade have not gone to get tested.

But Mariame Sylla Diene, a Health Ministry official, is so convinced of the importance of testing that she isn't waiting for the young people to come to her.

"Given that people aren't coming spontaneously to get themselves tested, we're going to where they hang out," she said at "12 Hours of Reggae". "If young people know they don't have HIV, they'll do their best to keep it that way."


Recent SENEGAL Reports
HIV-positive gays face double stigma,  17/Feb/06
Bringing condoms out of the closet,  20/Dec/05
Students increasingly a target of HIV-prevention campaigns,  6/Dec/05
Even when companies commit to HIV care, getting message across can be difficult,  12/Aug/05
AIDS takes hold in pilgrim town of Touba,  4/Apr/05
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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