Fight 'blesser' culture to fight the HIV pandemic, says expert

A barrier to fighting HIV is the stigma still associated with the virus and testing for it.
A barrier to fighting HIV is the stigma still associated with the virus and testing for it.
Image: Mrtom-uk / iStock via AFP Relaxnews

Actively addressing "blesser/blessee" relationships is at the heart of helping communities fight HIV, the Witkoppen Clinic said on Thursday.

The comment was made at an event ahead of World Aids Day, which is on Monday, December 1.

The clinic said increasing access to kits and fighting HIV/Aids stigma were also crucial.

During a discussion in Johannesburg, Dr Jean Bassett, the clinic's executive director, spoke of how communities can get involved in the fight against HIV.

“People test for different reasons, and we must find innovative solutions to accommodate them. The self-screening kits are an effective way of addressing issues of access, stigma and confidentiality that are often barriers to testing,” said Bassett.

She said since launching the self-testing kit project recently, they had seen a number of successes.

“There are two areas in which communities can make a significant difference, firstly by addressing the impact of blesser and blessee relationship. These complex relationships put young girls in dangerous situations. Another one is by addressing the issue of stigma,” she said.

An estimated one in five South Africans with HIV is unaware of their status, she said.

Ten times the number of adolescents aged 15-19 are being treated for HIV compared to in 2010, but fewer than 50% of young South Africans who present for HIV care go on to initiate antiretroviral therapy, Bassett said.

To reach the UN's goal that 90% of people with HIV must know their status, 90% of people with HIV must be on antiretroviral treatment, and 90% of people on treatment must be virally suppressed, she said.

Access to HIV testing is also important. In partnership with the Unjani Clinics Network and the Johannesburg north grand prix Network, the clinic has distributed more than 3,500 HIV self-screening kits to patients.

“In the past two months, we’ve seen a 100% initiation on to antiretroviral treatment for patients who have screened positive using the self-screening kits,” Bassett said.

She said even though some patients are comfortable with testing at a health facility, others are not. The kits, which are free to patients, allow for HIV screening in the privacy of their home.

“If your result is positive, you will be required to see a counsellor and take a confirmatory test,” said Bassett. “This ensures that your test result is correct. If positive, you will be initiated on to ART treatment as soon as possible.”

Self-screening is when a person collects their own blood or oral fluid, performs a rapid diagnostic test and interprets the result themselves. With a 99.7% accuracy rate, the test takes a maximum of 15 minutes to determine a result.

“We’ve had a positive response from members of the community, with many asking to take kits home to loved ones who are reluctant to go to a clinic for testing,” Bassett said.  

Part of the conversation was about how living with HIV has changed over the years, how it is now no longer a death sentence and life expectancy is the same as that of a normal life expectancy if on the right medication.