Malawi’s Health Minister Marjorie Ngaunje has said her ministry will soon announce new campaign approach to woo young people to go for HIV testing.
Ngaunje said in an interview that the annual HIV Testing and Counselling (HTC) Week, which the country conducted last July, clearly showed the reluctance of the youth to go for testing.
She said although over the course of the week, 185,000 people tested at HCT centres throughout the country there was a disappointingly low turn up for young people.
Less than 40,000 youths out of the projected 100,000 youths turned up for the test.
”It is the intention of government to change this trend because we believe these are the leaders of tomorrow and therefore they must know where they are in this respect,” she said.
Malawi’s national HIV infection rate for adults is estimated at 14.4 percent, with prevalence much higher in urban areas than in rural.
According to Malawi’s National AIDS Commission (NAC), a body mandated by the government to coordinate and mitigate the impact of the epidemic, more than half of new HIV infections occur in young people aged between 15 and 24, with young women far more likely to become infected than young men.
"The youth are a window of hope for the future and that future starts now with them as active participants in Voluntary Counselling and Testing," said Ngaunje. "We need a generation that knows their HIV status to inspire others and the nation as a whole."
Although there have been a range of reasons why the youth are shunning testing but HIV/AIDS-related stigma and fear of the unknown are the main reasons for not wanting to test.
YouthNet and Counselling (YONECO), an organisation aimed at addressing the social injustices and reproductive health issues affecting women and children, said stigma and a lack of support services for people living with HIV had negatively impacted VCT uptake.
"There are a number of calls for testing and yet there is limited advocacy to stop the stigmatising of those with HIV and AIDS," observed McBain Mkandawire YONECO executive director.
A recent YONECO research discovered that a significant number of HIV positive youth who experienced stigma and discrimination suffered from mental illness. Young people also expressed concern about inadequate post-test counselling and support and the difficulty of accessing treatment.
Testing services often failed to take into consideration the special needs of young people, Mkandawire said:
"There is need for a strategy that could attract young people to go for VCT."
Maxwell Matewere, executive director of Eye of the Child, another NGO which deals with issues affecting the youth, agreed there was an urgent need to find approaches for "wooing" young people to test. "Entertain the youth with live bands and music for instance and the numbers will increase," he suggested.
Arnold Kabisala, communications manager for Active Youth in Development Organisation (AYIDO), which works to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among the youth, said there had been a lot of rhetoric calling on young Malawians to get tested, but little action.
He urged government to take the lead in creating a conducive environment to halt the spread of HIV among the youth.
"Programmes must take into account the fact that the majority of people infected and affected are women and young people," Kabisala said.
He therefore said empowering them and recognising their rights must be a central feature of government’s programmes.