Like many countries, Namibia implements widespread AIDS education efforts. However, this does not always translate into people getting tested to know their status and help halt the spread of HIV. One public health educator, Havelinus N. Shemuketa, wanted to understand what factors might be contributing to low testing rates in his community.
Shemuketa conducted an independent research project in Windhoek, Namibia to take a closer look at people’s willingness and ability to get tested and to empower youth to know their status. His efforts are particularly relevant as HIV prevalence in Namibia is high, with approximately 13.1 percent of the adult population currently living with HIV and AIDS.
To promote HIV testing and better understand the challenges that youth face in Namibia, Shemuketa introduced advocacy and learning sessions at the Shipena Secondary School, situated in the impoverished suburb of Katutura within Windhoek. Shemuketa shared TeachAids and other materials with 23 young volunteers aged 15 to 24 years old. He aimed to increase the level of knowledge of HIV and AIDS among students, elevate risk perceptions, and develop a strategy to create demand for counseling and testing services at schools.
Common belief in Namibia assumes that students in Namibian schools lack basic knowledge of HIV and AIDS; however, Shemuketa found that a significant percentage of students at the Shipena Secondary School are knowledgeable about the disease, but reluctant to get tested because of discrimination and negative stigma that still surrounds HIV in their community. The students believed that once a person has been diagnosed with HIV, or is simply seen visiting a HIV testing facility, he or she will feel ashamed or be mocked by peers and this may lead to him or her to drop out of school.
One of the participants told Shemuketa, “You are always scared because…you think you are HIV positive…you feel ashamed of yourself…you can’t even breathe…you feel unhappy.” Additionally, despite the relatively high level of HIV and AIDS knowledge, Shemuketa found that several misconceptions about HIV and AIDS remain in the community.
As part of these educational efforts, the TeachAids software was used in addition to the TeachAids Educator Handbook to demonstrate the basics of HIV transmission and prevention. The TeachAids materials were supplemented by other resources on basic HIV facts. The sessions were interactive, allowing discussions to flow freely and provide a space for participants to ask questions.
By the end, it was evident that issues discouraging young people from being tested for HIV and AIDS are powerful and persistent, including fear of testing positive, fear of discrimination, low perception of risk, poor attitudes toward HIV testing in school, and lack of support from family and friends. However, after the day's activities, student perceptions about HIV changed dramatically. The students noted that the sessions were very informative and empowering, particularly the TeachAids materials. They also established an ongoing club called Youth Health and Development to advocate for increased knowledge of HIV status among fellow students and promoting universal access to HIV services.
After participating in the TeachAids session, one student noted, “I learnt that people who are infected with HIV and those who are not infected are equal and we should show each other love and respect.” Another student stated that HIV testing is important, “so that they can prevent the spread of HIV to their partners and they can get treatment before the virus destroys the immune system.”
Shemuketa concluded that with improved knowledge of HIV and by addressing specific barriers to counseling and testing, Namibia will succeed in improving knowledge and health among youth.
“Practically as a public health educator, I believed that once young people are educated on the basics of HIV and AIDS, they will automatically understand and get tested. But this was not the case. Through this action research, I learnt that there are a number of factors preventing young people in school from being tested for HIV. Nevertheless, I am very confident that if the service provision improves towards addressing the barriers, needs and fears that young people are experiencing, Namibia will succeed [in] increasing knowledge of HIV status among young people in school, hence advancing the agenda of universal access to prevention, treatment and care.” – Havelinus N. Shemuketa
TeachAids supports the efforts of community leaders like Shemuketa who dig deeper to understand the local factors that contribute to health behaviors, and commends his efforts to educate and empower Namibian youth about the risks associated with HIV and AIDS.