50,000 pass our HIV testing

18 August 2009 - 15:44 By Claire Keeton: 08 August 2009
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Disagreement over whether prizes should be offered to those who want to learn whether they are negative or positive

The Right to Know HIV testing competition has finally come to an end — and during the year-long drive about 50000 people have learned their status, including 23 pensioners in their 80s, but mainly South Africans in their 20s and 30s.

Almost 10000 entrants to the Discovery Health Sunday Times competition were from Johannesburg, more than 5000 were from Cape Town and 3000 from Durban.

According to a study by the Human Sciences Research Council, HIV testing has soared among 15-to 49-year -olds from 30.5% in 2005 to 50.8% in 2008.

Campaigns like A Man Knows (a recent undertaking led by celebrities urging men to get tested ) and Right to Know are seen as contributing to this surge.

Dr Olive Shisana, HSRC CEO said: “The availability of HIV testing sites, including mobile clinics, promotion of HIV testing — the global Know your Status campaign of which Right to Know is part — all play a role.”

In 2007, 43000 people were tested by New Start, the second-largest HIV testing organisation after government.

But in 2008, the number of people tested by New Start had shot up to 127000.

Dr Grietjie Strydom of Right to Care, a non-profit HIV/Aids treatment organisation, said every person who knew their status could make a difference.

She said that the 50000 people tested in the Right to Know campaign “are 50000 people who not only know (their HIV status), but have been through the pre-test and post-test process, the fear and the counselling.

“If they (have tested) negative, most will make an effort to stay negative.

“If they are positive they can look after themselves and plan their life, and 99% will not knowingly infect someone else.”

Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya said: “It is very encouraging to see so many South Africans overcoming their fears and taking an HIV test. Having HIV is no longer a death sentence — but only if you know your status and seek treatment.

“Testing for HIV needs to become a normal and routine part of healthcare. It should not be seen as something people do only when they have a reason to fear the result.

“By offering an incentive, we believe that the Right to Know campaign has contributed to making it hip to test.”

Neville Koopowitz, CEO of Discovery Health, said that his organisation wanted to apply its “model of giving people incentives to participate in healthy behaviours. .. to our country’s most pressing and important health issue”.

He said: “A significant number of individuals participated (in the competition), many of whom would otherwise not have known their HIV status and not have been equipped to manage their status.

“It is our hope that those 50000 will reach out to others to educate them.

“The campaign has also highlighted the extent of the challenge of getting people to overcome their fear and know their status. .. 50000 represents a relatively small proportion of the number of people who could have responded to the campaign.”

According to the latest HSRC study, the “most-at-risk” group in South Africa for HIV consists of African females aged between 20 and 34.

A third (32.7%) of black women in that age group have HIV, compared to 10.2% of the general population.

Using a prize to promote HIV testing has proved controversial, with organisations like New Start and civil society’s high-profile Treatment Action Campaign divided over this strategy.

New Start’s technical adviser, Scott Billy, said: “I think it’s a great idea. If you test and win the prize, you’ve won twice. You’ve won some money and you’ve won the opportunity to take control of your health, your life and your family’s future by learning your HIV status. And if you don’t win the prize, you’ve still won because you got yourself tested.”

One of the Right to Know winners tested at New Start.

Billy urged more South African companies to follow the lead of Discovery Health and Sunday Times — and Levi’s SA, which successfully promotes youth testing.

Rebecca Hodes, director of policy for the Treatment Action Campaign, said the organisation welcomed initiatives to promote HIV testing — and the significant increase in testing uptake recently. However, some of the TAC’s leaders and members thought “it is a great enough incentive to know your status and to access anti-retrovirals if you need them”, she said.

Hodes urged people to test consistently every three to six months — and not stop at one test only.

By Friday afternoon 48,862 entries had been recorded and counting was continuing.

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