PANCAP News-in the caribbean

Free HIV Testing and Counselling at UWI Mona: Hundreds of students and staff participate

Close to 500 UWI Mona students and 90 sixth formers, some of them with councilors or teachers, from nearby high schools, participated in Getting to Zero- Justice for All — the Mona Campus based HIV action day on November 21.

Information on this event had been circulating through videos on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, texts on students’ mobiles and the University’s Mona Messaging Service. The event was student-driven, run by the UWI Mona Guild of Students, the Vice-Chancellors Ambassadors UWI STAT (Students Today Alumni Tomorrow) and assisted by The University’s HIV and AIDS Response Programme (UWI HARP).

 

 


Students may not have been aware of the worrisome statistics driving this initiative. The estimated HIV incidence rate among youngsters aged 15 - 19 years – reflecting expected new cases in that age group – is 7.6%. For the 20 - 24 year group, this percentage is expected to be 14.9%, according to the Ministry of Health's 2012-2017 Strategic Plan.


The event, which started at 11:00 a.m. and ended at 6:00 p.m. when darkness made it impossible to continue, offered a combination of fun and serious matters: competitions – with prizes – on demonstrating HIV knowledge; testing practical skills of how to put on male, or female, condoms – with pleasure toys making condom use fun; discussions on sexual diversity, triggered by experienced facilitators; and, an ‘Express Yourself’ booth – which turned out to be highly popular – where messages could be sketched, painted or drawn. Free testing and counseling, provided by the ‘Bashy Bus’ – an NGO HIV testing unit which visits communities across the island – was drawing long lines of students and staff. Ashe’s Performing Company pitched in to facilitate the unexpectedly high demand.


The more than 400 participants who were willing to wait patiently for their turn to get tested and counseled remained undisturbed by some short showers of rain. None of the tests showed positive, although we know the results need to be interpreted with caution, given the three months ‘window period’ after which the antibodies to the virus become detectable.


This remarkable turn-out demonstrates several useful principles for strengthening tertiary level institutional responses to HIV in Jamaica, and perhaps the wider Caribbean. It shows the need to also bring HIV testing to where students are instead of only offering them formal health care services. It also suggests the viability of an ‘edutainment formula’– in this instance, offering entertaining games, dancing and drama provoking discussions. Most importantly is to put this target group – students and staff – in charge of the design and implementation of any HIV related intervention.


All day, Roots FM, the inner-city community radio station in Kingston, was on the spot, offering an outside broadcast, interviewing participants throughout the day. One of their last interviewees, UWI’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Nigel Harris, who spent at least two hours with the participants, emphasised UWI’s commitment to the elimination of HIV and AIDS, which includes inserting HIV knowledge in its curriculum, but also, playing a leading role in developing a better understanding of how stigmatization and criminalization of vulnerable groups can contribute to the epidemic.

 


The UWI Vice Chancellor added: “ Getting to Zero and Justice for All will require not only an end to stigmatization and discrimination against persons who are HIV infected, but also (an end to) the criminalization that certain groups are subjected to –causing fear and preventing them from seeking timely treatment – such as, for instance, men who have sex with men or sex workers.” Stigma, discrimination and criminalisation, he continued, “run counter to the human rights that all persons in our society deserve –regardless of age, gender, religion, sexual orientation or race."