SOUTH AFRICA: Low HIV prevalence rates on campus

Photo: Laura Lopez Gonzalez/IRIN
Pop quiz: How well do you know your epidemic?
Johannesburg, 29 March 2010 (PlusNews) - HIV prevalence rates among South Africa's university students remain low, but risk is never far off according to one of the largest surveys ever conducted in the country.

The study of almost 24,000 students and staff found a national HIV prevalence rate among college students of about 3 percent – a sharp contrast to the national prevalence rate of around 18 percent estimated by UNAIDS. A combination of individual questionnaires, interviews, and dried blood spot HIV testing was used.

The research was conducted by the Higher Education HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) a government initiative to strengthen the AIDS response in the higher education sector.

The study also found that prevalence rates were about three times higher in students more than 25 years in age and that female students were hardest hit, exhibiting a prevalence rate of 4.7 percent - more than double the 2 percent rate found among their male peers .

''We can provide as much skills and training as we want, but if we do not include HIV education [in our higher education institutions] we will simply be training young people for the grave.''
"The study is really the first comprehensive attempt to define the impact of HIV in the higher education sector," said Gail Andrews, HEAIDS programme director.

"To some extent, it is reassuring that HIV among students and staff at higher education institutions is less common than in the general population, but ... it does not mean that any institution can afford to be complacent. Both the survey and the qualitative research ... indicate that the sexual and social behaviour of sections of university communities puts them at risk."

A similarly low prevalence rate of about 1.5 percent was detected among academic staff, but a much higher rate was found in university service staff, who were also least likely to have health insurance.

Risk, writing and arithmetic

The research revealed that about 60 percent of sexually active students had been tested for HIV before, and a similar percentage reported using a condom the last time they had sex.

Still, campus life is risky. Study researcher Dr Warren Parker said the self-administered questionnaires allowed under-researched topics to be explored, such as risky sex, and same-sex relationships, reported by 6 percent of male students.

About 8 percent of all students reported engaging in anal sex; Parker told IRIN/PlusNews that some participants mistakenly perceived anal sex as less risky than vaginal intercourse.

Other high-risk student behaviours that failed to raise red flags included multiple concurrent partnerships and inter-generational sex, where male and female students took partners at least ten years their senior, often for material gain.

"Some new students, especially those from poor backgrounds, may show up to campus with no accommodation. They may have their school fees paid, but no money for food," said Dr Kevin Kelly, director of the Centre for AIDS Development, Research and Evaluation (CADRE), and part of the research team. "This question of students' basic needs cannot be separated from the HIV question."

Know your epidemic

Andrews, of HEAIDS, stressed that many institutions – even those engaged in HIV research – might not "know their epidemic" as well as they should because campus HIV responses usually did not include men who have sex with men, anal sex, or male students with older partners.

Many students and staff felt that on-campus HIV-related health services were lacking or inadequate, which hindered voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) for HIV.

The report's recommendations included mandatory HIV and AIDS awareness as part of university staff induction, improved links between VCT and psycho-social support on campus, and expanded bridging programmes during orientation week for vulnerable first-year students. Researchers found that first-year female students were often targeted by older male students and campus visitors.

South Africa's Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, told IRIN/PlusNews: "We can provide as much skills and training as we want, but if we do not include HIV education [in our higher education institutions] we will simply be training young people for the grave."


Theme (s): Children, Gender Issues, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

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

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