SOUTHERN AFRICA: Skipping class, skipping treatment

Photo: Laura Lopez Gonzalez/IRIN
Increasingly, universities are moving to offer VCT services on campus. The University of Pretoria has been offering VCT to students and staff since 2005
Johannesburg, 30 September 2008 (PlusNews) - Adjusting to college or university life can be rough – moving into residence, living with roommates, balancing academic demands with those of a social life. Now try taking your antiretroviral (ARV) medication without the whole world knowing you're positive, and things get even more complicated. Disclosing to fellow students and lecturers can help, but is by no means a cure-all.

Treatment adherence, proper nutrition and treating opportunistic infections are all problematic in the campus environment, according to positive students who gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the recent Imagined Futures III conference held by the Centre for the Study of AIDS to discuss the impact of HIV on college students in southern Africa.

Keeping up appearances

University is a pretty public place and when you’re trying to keep your antiretrovirals (ARVs) - and your status - under wraps, adherence can be rough.

"The taking of ARVs is usually done in secret but last December I had problems because one of my lectures was clashing with the time I take my medication," said Bernard Kampolombo, the first student at the University of Zambia to go public with his positive HIV status.

An awkward timetable left Kampolombo with some serious choices: take his pills in class, drop the lecture, or come late. "In the end, my lecturer simply said, 'If you come five minutes late, don't dare come at all.'"

Living in a student residence can also be difficult: "Let's take a situation that you are in your room, your friends have come, and it's time for you to take your drugs. If they sit there, you will not take the drugs," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Gift Mangwende, from the University of Zimbabwe, said the pressure he felt to keep both his treatment and his status secret led to missed doses and untreated opportunistic infections because he was too afraid to disclose to campus health workers.

While his health deteriorated, so did his relationships with classmates, as more friends meant a greater risk that someone would catch him in the act of taking his medication.

Finally, Mangwende said, his only hope was disclosure and he went public with his status in 2005. Both he and Kampolombo said being open about their condition paved the way to getting the support they needed from deans, teachers and peers, but many other students on southern Africa's campuses may be falling through the cracks.

Mirroring society

ARVs are not offered at Zimbabwe's universities, and low levels of testing among students mean those advocating for ARV clinics on campuses have few statistics to back their claims of a need for such centres, said Tayson Mudarikiri of Students And Youths Working on reproductive Health Action Team, also known as SAYWHAT Zimbabwe, a national organisation.

''Universities are microcosms of societies. What's going on in terms of sex, behaviour, access to services, power dynamics - all of that - is happening in our universities.''
"Being HIV-positive equals wasting away and a painful death for many," Mudarikiri said. "As such, an HIV-positive status is still a cause for stigma."

In high-prevalence countries like Zimbabwe (about 15 percent) or South Africa (about 18 percent), it is unlikely that HIV is not a problem among students, but specific information on the level of HIV infection on campuses in southern Africa is almost non-existent.

South Africa has taken steps to bridge this gap. Earlier this year the country began one of the largest national HIV-prevalence studies ever undertaken, in which 25,000 randomly selected students and staff on more than 20 tertiary institutions will be tested.

Johan Maritz, a senior manager at the Centre for the Study of AIDS of the University of Pretoria, which has more than 50,000 students, said about 300 lined up at the voluntary testing and counselling (VCT) centre on the campus every month to be tested.

Although the exact numbers of students living with HIV remain elusive for the time being, Pierre Brouard, the centre's deputy director, commented: "Universities are microcosms of societies. What's going on in terms of sex, behaviour, access to services, power dynamics – all of that - is happening in our universities."


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Children, Education, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

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

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