Over 10m men have been reached through health NGO Right to Care’s Me1st campaign, launched in November last year to empower men to put their health first, get tested for HIV and go onto antiretroviral treatment if they test positive.
Men who have sex with men, also referred to as MSM, face devastating stigma and discrimination in society but especially when seeking healthcare services. As a key population disproportionally affected by HIV and sexually transmitted infections, the Me1st movement focuses on reaching as many HIV positive men as possible and then linking them to antiretroviral therapy and care. It is being funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and rolled out by Right to Care, which is working with local NGOs located in Gauteng, the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Mpumalanga.
South Africa has the biggest HIV epidemic in the world with some 7.2m people currently living with HIV. According to UNAIDS, 47% of new HIV infections globally are among key populations which includes men who have sex with men. HIV prevalence in the general population is at 19% in South Africa, however, amongst men who have sex with men, it is 27% and this figure is even higher in major metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg, where prevalence rates as high as 40% have been documented.
Andrew Lethole, MSM marketing coordinator at Right to Care says, “There has been a dramatic increase in the number of MSM who have tested for HIV in both urban and hard to reach areas across South Africa. As a result of our Me1st movement, a high percentage of the men who tested HIV positive have been supported in accessing healthcare services and treatment and are now on antiretroviral treatment.”
Me1st.co.za is interactive with a confidential chatline handled by qualified counsellors 24-7, many of whom are MSM themselves. The WhatsApp line (072 637 6212) has also been highly successful in engaging men and providing accurate information.
“We are engaging with MSM in a safe and confidential environment and addressing the apathy and fear that many men experience around HIV testing. More men now know where they can get tested for HIV and how to access treatment and care,” says Lethole.
Right to Care is working with Rainbow Seeds in Bloemfontein and Welkom (Free State), the Durban Gay & Lesbian Community & Health Centre which also has a site in Ladysmith (KwaZulu-Natal), Social Health & Empowerment Coalition of Transgender Women in Africa (SHE) in East London (Eastern Cape) and Life Line in Kimberly (Northern Cape). The Anova Health Institute has implemented a complementary MSM campaign in Johannesburg (Gauteng) and Nelspruit (Mpumalanga).
“Our strong relationship with the South African Health Department and the Anova Health Institute has also ensured that many public clinics across the country are sensitised towards the MSM community, and provide free, confidential and judgement-free HIV and STI screening and treatment.”
While South Africa’s constitution protects the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, many men who have sex with men face stigma, discrimination and even violence. This prevents them from disclosing their sexual preferences, even to healthcare workers, which means they have traditionally not accessed HIV prevention and treatment services.