Taking a Bold Look at HIV and Society in Khayelitsha, South Africa

3 minute read

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Truck
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Truck
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

One side of the MSF-supported youth clinics in Khayelitsha buzzed with the usual milieu of patients, nurses, and counselors, while the other half featured an unexpected mix of DJs, radio personalities and performers. The clinic is home to a monthly youth-led radio show that takes a bold look at HIV and society. It also turns the youth clinic into quite the (educational) party.

This month’s topic was “Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP),” an HIV prevention method in which HIV-negative people take daily medication to reduce their risk of becoming infected. This is hardly a light topic and I was eager to see how they would handle it.

As an intern with MSF Khayelitsha, one of my core responsibilities is to help craft a protocol for MSF’s PrEP pilot program, which aims to provide high-risk young women with access to the medication. When the radio show approached MSF to train its youth leaders about the topic, we jumped at the opportunity. After all, one of the essential components of our pilot will be to educate the community about PrEP, and local youth radio is a fantastic way to kick-off this initiative.

In the weeks leading up to the radio show, I met with the radio hosts to provide trainings and to discuss their thoughts on the matter. I was just as eager for their opinions as they were for knowledge about the topic. After all, their feedback provided valuable insight into how youth would react when presented with the option of PrEP. I went into the first training session expecting to break down the basics and just get everyone up to speed on the topic. I had spent the past couple of months pouring over the literature about PrEP, so I went in feeling pretty confident.

I had hardly gotten through the first slide of my “PrEP 101” PowerPoint when the rapid-fire questions began: What is the difference between this drug and ARVs [antiretrovirals] for HIV-positive people? Be more specific. Who would most benefit from taking it? What is the risk of resistance? What about side effect profile? Why is the government only providing this to select high-risk groups? What about serodiscordant couples [where one partner is HIV-positive and the other is negative]? And so on and so forth…

They sent me home with instructions to return with a visual that could help them grasp PrEP’s mechanism of action and one of the actual pills so that they could physically see the medication. Turns out I was the one who needed to get up to speed!

While I was still reeling from “PrEP Hardball, youth edition,” I was impressed by the way these youth mentors sunk their teeth into the topic, determined to learn everything about the prevention tactic, develop strong opinions and advocate for them. When the actual radio show rolled around, I wasn’t surprised that they were able to discuss this complex subject in a passionate yet nuanced way. I was particularly impressed by the way they brought the topic to life with speakers, poetry, fierce debates, and musical performances—a far cry from the uninspired PowerPoint I had opened with.

One lesson was clear: youth are more than prepared to grapple with complex and weighty topics like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and make informed decisions about it. They are ready. It is just up to us to provide education, access and support.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation