Two weeks ago I attended a workshop dubbed “ART Advocacy: Providing ART for All Students” facilitated by Students and Youth Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT) in Bulawayo.
The purpose of the workshop was to advocate for the provision of ART (anti-retroviral therapy) in tertiary institutions as often students infected with HIV end up defaulting treatment because of its inaccessibility.
Speaking during the workshop, Linda Ncube* said she decided to take control of her life when she was diagnosed with HIV. She said, “I told my husband and fortunately he got tested and accepted his status. I then decided to study for my Ordinary Levels and go for teacher training at the United College of Education.”
Linda’s story shows the resilience people can show in the fight against HIV. Their efforts have been dampened however by the inaccessibility of anti-retroviral treatment (ART) especially at tertiary institutions. “I had the courage to step up at my age to go back to school and make a better future for myself and my children. My efforts are being pulled down by lack of access to treatment at college,” said Linda.
Another student from Hillside Teachers’ College who is a positive living ambassador, chronicled how after she needed a new supply of her medication she was told to go to Mberengwa as this is where her ART was initiated.
“I did not have money to go and collect medication in Mberengwa. Through the assistance of SAYWHAT I managed to raise money and travel,” she said.
Upon arrival in Mberengwa, she found that the clinic was out of medical supplies, forcing her to come back to school empty-handed. This is the sad reality most HIV-positive students in tertiary institutions face.
When this young woman told her story, emotions were high as a Ministry of Health official attempted to defend his ministry by discrediting her story. Dr Ruth Labode who heads the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health and Child Care together with other participants at the workshop, would have none of it as a mini-war of words ensued.
Dr Labode said: “There is no perfect system. Every system has its loopholes. The right thing for the Ministry to do is to take notes from this young woman and make corrective measures so that such a thing does not happen again.”
A nurse from the Mpilo Opportunistic Infections (OI) clinic said it was unfortunate that such a thing had happened, insisting that normally they would have found a way of assisting her. Another participant at the workshop lamented the high levels of ill-treatment of patients by nurses at the OI clinic.
It is important to note that statistical data gathered by SAYWHAT shows that about 70% of students in tertiary institutions are highly sexually active. The unavailability of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services is a huge oversight as it means students are likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, and if they contract HIV and do not receive treatment, have a shorter life span.
A nurse from Midlands State University noted that the institution houses about 25,000 students who are being attended to by three nurses. One nurse is soon set to relocate to Zvishavane. Furthermore, two of the nurses are not up-to-date on ART treatment and need additional training.
All of these issues these issues were raised to show that our tertiary institutions have for too long been negligent in the fight against HIV. While we cannot overlook efforts that have been made to provide services, they are insufficient for achieving wellness. I say they are insufficient because they are not well-equipped to give comprehensive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. Yes, they can test for HIV but do they have the ability to give treatments afterwards? Unfortunately, they do not.
To combat this, participants at the workshop came up with several recommendations. Among them were that all tertiary institutions in Zimbabwe should have functional clinics capable of initiating anti-retroviral treatment. Also, all nurses should be trained to initiate ART. It was further suggested that all nurses in tertiary institutions be under the Ministry of Health and Child Care and that there should be a radical change in the way patients are supplied with ART; if a patient needs an additional supply of medication they should be able to access it.
Other participants demanded that there be total eradication of transfer letters for ART treatment if one moves to a different town. Instead clinics ought to be computerised and clinic personnel should communicate over the phone to facilitate patient transfers.
There was a consensus that an increase in working hours and improved customer service in both tertiary and government institutions was necessary. Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) were also encouraged to help make nurses aware of the importance of professional conduct when dealing with patients.
There was also a call for the provision of youth-friendly centres and health facilitators who are well-equipped to communicate with young people on sexual reproductive health issues.
As a young person representing students in tertiary institutions, I would like to applaud SAYWHAT and its partners for the efforts they are making to change the lives of youths and students. Our voices are united and we say, “We demand ART initiation in tertiary institutions!”
* Not her real name
Main image from www.dailymail,co.uk