Mr Benjamin Bearnot, a final-year medical student at New York University and holder of a Fulbright-Fogarty fellowship in Public Health, spent months committed to HIV and AIDS programmes at UKZN.

In January this year, under the guidance of his Fulbright-Fogarty fellowship mentors Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim and Dr Ayesha Kharsany of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), Bearnot established a collaborative relationship with UKZN’s HIV/AIDS Programme. 

Through this partnership, Bearnot together with Ms Nomonde Magantolo, the HIV/AIDS Programme Co-ordinator, assisted staff in the HIV/AIDS Programme with programmatic evaluation and employing innovative ways to increase HIV testing uptake on the Howard College campus.

‘While HIV prevalence has been shown to be lower in the tertiary education sector than in the wider community, universities are in the vanguard of South African society and have important roles in the education and protection of future African leaders, executives and scholars,’ said Bearnot.

Since 2010, students and staff wanting HIV counselling and testing (HCT) on UKZN campuses had to arrange appointments in advance at the campus clinic.  Under this system, the number of students and staff testing on campus fell as waiting times for appointments grew.  Another concern was that many students and staff failed to arrive for appointments, possibly after having a change of mind.

‘To address this, we began by hiring two trained HIV counsellors to provide HCT services at two locations on campus – the campus clinic and the HIV/AIDS Support Unit – and eliminating the requirement for making an appointment,’ said Bearnot.

Furthermore, they designed an HIV testing service that was compatible with and targeted to the specific needs of a university student population.

Bearnot was instrumental in developing a communications campaign to help further catalyse students’ reinvigorated enthusiasm for testing, which is called Value In Prevention or VIP. 

‘As part of this campaign we have placed posters on campus informing students of our new drop-in HIV testing service and advising them that they can become VIPs in their university community by knowing their HIV status and encouraging members of their social networks to do the same,’ said Bearnot.

Staff in the HIV/AIDS Programme said within the first three months of the improved HCT strategy, they had tested more than 1000 UKZN students and staff – over three times the number tested at the Howard College campus clinic last year.  ‘Many of the students arrive in groups and often return after their own HIV test with other friends to get tested.  There is a tremendous energy surrounding the HIV/AIDS programme, and after the successes of our pilot project, we are optimistic about sustaining our services at Howard College and extending these programmatic gains to other UKZN campuses and beyond in the coming months.’

Bearnot said he had been fortunate to work at CAPRISA and at the HIV/AIDS Support Unit. ‘The people I have worked with are very bright and hard working.’

‘In the absence of a vaccine we need to use a collaboration of strategies to end HIV… The goal is an HIV free generation.’

HIV Counsellors, Ms Pinky Myaka and Ms Londeka Masobo, and Health Promoter in the HIV/AIDS programme, Ms Noxolo Bathembu, said although there was still a lot of negative feeling around HIV, the programme was happy to be helping create a new generation of leaders who would be sensitive and break down the stigma around the disease.
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