Inaugural Student Services HIV and AIDS Research IndabaAgriculture, Engineering & Science

Dr Sibusiso Chalufu (far right) with staff members from the University HIV and AIDS Programme and delegates who attended the Research Indaba.  Dr Sibusiso Chalufu (far right) with staff members from the University HIV and AIDS Programme and delegates who attended the Research Indaba.

There are 1 000 new HIV infections in South Africa every day whilst one out of five people in the world, living with the disease, are in this country. Those were just some of the statistics revealed during the HIV and AIDS Inaugural Research Indaba hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) HIV and AIDS Programme within the Student Services Division.

Using the theme: “HIV and AIDS in Institutions of Higher Learning: A Focus on Knowledge Generation, Social Empowerment, Scientific and Behavioural Aspects of the Pandemic”, the two-day Indaba explored the latest statistics, challenges, research and realities facing Higher Education Institutions and society as a whole.

According to the organisers, the motivation behind the conference was to introduce ‘a research culture’ into the support sector at UKZN in respect to the HIV and AIDS Programme and the critical work carried out by the department. It was seen as a strategic decision to focus more on confronting the pandemic from the angle of ‘Research’ as a means to be more evidence based.

The HIV and AIDS Programme realised that it has become critical to examine the pandemic from a behavioural context through ‘Behavioural Research’. It is hoped that more action-based behavioural research at UKZN will allow the HIV and AIDS Programme and others to gain key insight to the underlying factors that contribute to HIV infection rates and in turn create a means of empowerment and inform strategies. Hence, the Indaba marked the commencement of the research strategy for the HIV and AIDS Programme which is a new beginning for the Department, Division and University as a whole. As of this year, the HIV and AIDS Programme has also aligned its strategy to the United Nations ‘90 90 90’ global AIDS strategy. The strategy is meant to end the pandemic by 2030. Hence the objectives of the 90 90 90 strategy are to ensure that by 2020:

  • “90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status”
  • “90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy”, and,
  • “90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.”

In his opening address, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal (UKZN), Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, conveyed that nobody in South Africa escaped being touched by the pandemic as it affected the life of every single South African in one way or another.

In addition, he relayed that UKZN had invested heavily in the area of research in HIV and AIDS, and it was home to three leading HIV and AIDS research centres. Van Jaarsveld revealed that K-RITH and the Africa Centre recently received a R170 million Wellcome Grant towards research. He indicated that the University had also secured - through the Student Services Division - a Ford Foundation grant to explore and conduct research on the pandemic on UKZN campuses.

Keynote speakers included the husband and wife HIV and AIDS research duo, Professor Salim Abdool Karim and Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim. Quoting latest statistics, Salim Abdool Karim highlighted that there were 1 000 new infections in South Africa everyday; one out of five people living with HIV in the world were in South Africa; more than 7 million people were living with HIV and that treatment reached less than 50% of patients. A third of global infections were in South Africa, India and Kenya.

The panel discussion (which included the Department of Health, Higher Education Sector, UKZN HIV Co-ordinator, Peer Educator and Researcher) presentations centred around issues affecting university students, including ‘blessers’ or ‘sponsors’ (men who give financial and material favours to students in exchange for sex).

Highlighting the progression of the pandemic since its discovery, Quarraisha Abdool Karim spoke on: “How Values and Norms Impact What We Do”, saying a lot of progress had been made in the transformation of HIV treatment. The country had gone through a period of denialism but had emerged from it with part of that emergence being the introduction of the use of ARVs. The use of ARVs to prevent mother-to-infant infections was one of the major successes in reducing the spread of HIV infection. ‘In 2009, we had 30 to 40 percent transmission rates whereas today there’s a transmission rate of less than 2%.’ Abdool Karim highlighted that half of South Africa’s population were under the age of 30 and with young girls having children, the mother’s survival was critical to the infant’s survival.

The Executive Director of the Student Services Division, Dr Sibusiso Chalufu, asserted that collaboration between concerned parties was vital for positive outcomes. He acknowledged the support of government departments and NGOs.

The presentations at the Indaba were of high quality and relevance. The presenters demonstrated sheer research strength and knowledge and all presentations stimulated engaging discussions which complemented the essence of the Indaba. The Indaba also attracted research that was done places beyond our borders such as Zimbabwe and Kenya. Delegates even travelled from places abroad to present their research and contribute to the discussions.

Some of the presentations revolved around key areas such as:

-       HCT uptake among university students

-       ‘Sponsor’ (also referred to as a ‘Blesser’) Mentality among University students and its implications on HIV (a Kenyan study)

-       Students’ Attitudes and Perceptions towards Medical Male Circumcision

-       Students’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviours with regards to HIV and AIDS at a university. (This was a study done in Zimbabwe)

-       Racial differences in willingness to participate in HIV prevention clinical trials amongst university students

-       Gendered knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions of university students towards the ‘ABC’ strategy for HIV prevention.

Also discussed were the scarcity of HIV and AIDS research on university students. It was revealed that new infections were high among girls and women between the ages of 15 and 24. Other issues raised included the preference of students to use the campus clinics to be tested for HIV and AIDS rather than using allocated stations during campaigns in an effort to avoid the stigma associated with being seen having the test.

One of the highlights of the Indaba was the strong collaboration with WITS University (represented by Professor Mzikazi Nduna), which gave rise to the WITS Symposium that was well positioned on the second day of the Indaba. This symposium presented a rich and detailed analysis of LGBTI at a Higher Education level. Other crucial aspects such as gender based violence, human rights, the missing voice regarding LGBTI, and the responsibility of each person were also emphasised by the remarkable and intellectual presenters that were members of the symposium from WITS University. This hence marked a strategic and collaborative relationship between both universities in relation to HIV and AIDS.

Overall, the Indaba made a strong statement regarding HIV and AIDS in Higher Education. It was clear that the fight to free our society from HIV and AIDS was far from over, however, the on-going research and interventions by committed researchers and stakeholders would not stop nor decline. The Indaba became a strong platform for critical knowledge exchange and engagement and the presentations enhanced the understanding of the current realities and happenings in relation to HIV and AIDS in a Higher Education setting.

Sithembile Shabangu