Johannesburg, 28 January 2019: Ian Ralph, Group Chief Operations Officer of Right to Care, says that the Me1st campaign aimed at providing HIV, STI and TB screening and support to Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) is yielding excellent results following the rollout of the campaign in November 2018. Beyond that, the campaign has opened unprecedented discourse within South Africa’s MSM community and is saving lives by encouraging MSMs to put their health first.
Right to Care launched the Me1st initiative on 23 November 2018 with the aim of promoting HIV, STI and TB screening and to assist MSMs with access to free testing, treatment and encouraging them to stay on treatment. The campaign has also helped to create awareness and address issues that the MSM community face such as discrimination and stigma when accessing healthcare. Right to Care is partnering with Anova Health Institute, LGBT Health & Community Centre Durban, SHE, Free State Rainbow Seeds and Lifeline Northern Cape to provide free HIV, STI and TB screening, education and counselling in a confidential, judgement-free environment. The Me1st campaign was then launched to promote these services and to encourage regular testing and screening and the practicing of safer sex. The campaign is also supported by the Global Fund as part of their effort to fight against TB and Malaria.
Ian Ralph says that within an eight-week period, there has been a noticeable increase in the HIV, STI and TB testing taking place at the Me1st partner clinics across the country. “The campaign has opened a dialogue around discrimination against MSMs and the HIV infection risk within the MSM community. Even more than that, it has shone a spotlight on the risks faced by any South African when they feel unable to access basic healthcare – regardless of sexual identity. We feel that we have opened the door a little further to a previously overlooked group in our community and will continue to ensure that MSMs feel welcome and that they are provided with the assistance that they need,” says Ralph.
Ralph commented that through a combined effort between Right to Care, the partner organisations and various agencies, the campaign has made use of different programmes and platforms to promote a healthier sexual lifestyle, safer sex and testing.
Says Free State Rainbow Seeds MSM & LGBTI Director, Mx Zenny Kgolokwane: “This is a great concept and appealing to our target market – that being the young and old MSMs. This campaign is fun and draws a lot of attention and comfort to those that are afraid to know their HIV status. Free State Rainbow Seeds tested over 136 MSMs in two days through Me1st in the Mangaung District. Me1st has really assisted on breaking the stigma and discrimination around communities marginalizing MSMs or the ‘most at risk population’. I hope this campaign grows nationally, because most importantly it teaches our audience to put themselves first!”
In 2017/8, there were 270 000 new HIV infections recorded, while 110 000 South Africans died from AIDS-related illnesses. This translates to 740 new infections every day in South Africa. To put that into perspective, it means that that there are 30 new HIV infections every hour. Despite the fact that South Africa has the largest ARV programme in the world, over 270 people die every day from HIV related illnesses, and the group most affected are key populations (such as MSM), because of a lack of access to basic healthcare services.
Right to Care is aware of the fact that the MSM community is disproportionally affected by HIV because many MSM do not get tested out of fear of being stigmatised or discriminated against. HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men in South Africa is estimated at 26.8%. This varies geographically but it is reported to have risen by more than 10% in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban since 2008.
“The Me1st campaign is a vehicle for bridging this gap,” says Kgolokwane. “It speaks directly to the patient need, and by reaching our targets of increasing the positivity yield to 20% and conducting 26 000 tests by March 2019, we could potentially change the healthcare landscape.”
The Me1st message is about putting MSMs wellbeing above everything else – and this starts by knowing your status and preventing the spread of HIV and STIs. In order to achieve engagement and to encourage community participation, Right to Care set up a direct WhatsApp line offering 24/7 support and feedback (072 637 6212) as well as a chat functionality on the Me1st website, staffed by a dedicated team. “These platforms make Me1st a game changer for HIV testing and awareness in South Africa. For the first time, MSMs can make direct contact when seeking help for testing and counselling in complete privacy without judgement or discrimination. These platforms have opened a channel of communication that did not previously exist,” Kgolokwane explains.
To further connect with the community, Right to Care signed on campaign ambassadors who were tasked with bringing HIV, STI and TB screening of MSMs into the spotlight. These ambassadors include social media influencers, celebrities and LGBT community leaders.
“The message behind Me1st is to put yourself, your health and wellbeing first, above all else,” says campaign ambassador, Moshe Ndiki. “As someone who understands the importance of sexual health and awareness, I can see why this campaign has resonated with the community to this extent. If we can convince MSMs to get tested and to seek guidance and counselling on the importance of safer sex and HIV and STI prevention and accessing and adhering to treatment, then we are saving lives.”
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