A large crowd of students gathered at Ekurhuleni East TVET College to hear Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Mduduzi Manana, and Mayor, Councillor Mzwandile Masina, speak at the launch of the 2017 First Things First (FTF) campaign in Gauteng.

“Gauteng is one of the provinces worst affected by the HIV epidemic. We are committed to reducing the spread of HIV, and programmes like First Things First are an important component of our efforts,” said Manana.

Gauteng has the third highest incidence of new HIV infections in the country, as well as the third highest prevalence of the disease. Over 13% of people living in Gauteng are HIV positive. Women aged 15 to 24 are particularly vulnerable to infection, with an incidence rate that is nearly triple that of their male peers.

Over the last seven years FTF has tested nearly 500,000 students for HIV and screened a similar number for TB and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The programme also brings counselling and HIV-prevention education directly to students on campuses.

FTF is an initiative of the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS), mandated by the DHET.

“Last year alone we provided HIV testing and counselling to more than 160,000 students in universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges across South Africa,” said Director of HEAIDS, Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia.

“We also distributed over 15 million male and female condoms. Our goal is to reach every student attending a higher education institution. We believe this is vital to creating an HIV-free generation,” continued Dr Ahluwalia.

In addition to HIV, STI and TB services, FTF offers screening, treatment and support for a wide range of general health issues including hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular health and cancer. The programme also provides family planning, dual contraception, reproductive and maternal health services to students in need.

“Our data shows that a holistic approach to HIV prevention is much more effective than simply addressing individual factors,” said Dr Ahluwalia.

“A recent impact study of the FTF programme, published by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), has shown that the integration of general health services with HIV testing has significantly strengthened the relevance of the entire programme,” continued Dr Ahluwalia.

Dr Ahluwalia highlighted the importance of extending testing services to TVET colleges. “TVET colleges often lack adequate facilities and resources for testing and counselling students, especially in rural areas where contributing factors like transactional sex and ‘sugar daddies’ are far more prevalent,” explained Dr Ahluwalia.

“The future progress and prosperity of South Africa depends on the students in our higher education institutions. They are our future leaders. It is critical that we equip them with the knowledge and skills to remain HIV negative and healthy,” said Manana.

“First Things First has proved to be very effective at this mission and I am pleased to be launching its 2017 Gauteng campaign,” continued Manana.

“The higher education and training sector has the potential to lead a movement against HIV. With the right interventions our students can become champions who can carry the message into their communities. Together, we can defeat the pandemic,” concluded Dr Ahluwalia.

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