CELL CAMPAIGN TO BOOST HIV TESTING
There is still much confusion surrounding the difference between HIV and Aids, says HIV Talk MD, Linda Moore.
HIV Talk, a not-for-profit organisation supported by the National Department of Health, plans to provide pre-test information via cellphone to help bolster HIV testing. The service will go live on 1 December, World Aids Day.
But, while it debuts during a time of increased awareness around HIV and Aids, the organisation stresses the need for an “everyday campaign”. Founder and managing director, Linda Moore, says it aims to reach the millions of people needing knowledge on what the disease is about, how to stay negative, and where to get tested.
“This concept is to promote testing and to clear up the huge misconception about the difference between HIV and Aids. It will also speed up the testing process, with all the infrastructure that is needed for a person to be tested,” says Moore.
According to the company, only 5% of SA's approximately 49 million people went for HIV testing last year. It attributes this to limited access to information, rapid testing not being readily available, and people not knowing where to get tested close to where they live or work.
“The few minutes on TV and short messages on billboards or are nowhere near enough information to clarify the facts on HIV and Aids,” states Moore.
Dr Francois Olivier, director of HIV Talk, says: “We need to look at ways and means to optimise communication regarding HIV and Aids.” He adds this has been focused mainly on condoms and abstinence in the past few years.
“We are losing the war against HIV/Aids and we have to get people more involved. We're living in an electronic age and primary school kids are now major cellphone users, as are young adults up to about 30 years.”
He says these individuals, aged 15 to 25, are the very ones facing the greatest risk, citing UN stats that reveal 50% of new infections occur in that age group.
“People in SA have widespread access to cellphones – it's a massive, wide-open, effective channel of communication,” says Olivier.
Call on me
With HIV Talk, pre-test information is provided to the caller via voice response technology in a choice of five different languages: English, Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans. The service is designed to be prepaid by a sponsor or employer, so callers dial a toll-free number, after which the system automatically hangs up and then sends an SMS informing them to expect a call from HIV Talk.
A return call is made to the caller, which takes around five minutes, after which an SMS with a caller identification number is sent. The ID number is used to track a person from training to testing where possible, says Moore.
Cellphones are a massive, wide-open, effective channel of communication in SA, says HIV Talk director Dr Francois Olivier.
The caller will also receive the HIV-911 contact number on the SMS to find out where to go for an HIV rapid test. Post-test counselling will still be done on a face-to-face basis, says Olivier, as post-test counselling on cellphones is still in development.
From a departmental viewpoint, says Olivier, the problem has always been that pre-test counselling is a non-negotiable policy before testing can be done. The Department of Health, which has approved the HIV Talk service, also requires that pre-test counselling be done according to certain criteria. But often long queues and the unavailability of trained personnel make pre-test counselling challenging, with increasing numbers of people ignorant of the facts of the disease.
“A person might only have a few questions before the HIV test is done,” says Moore. “This information would be accessible to each and every person with a cellphone.” She adds that an SMS certificate is sent to the caller's phone after the information session, which is then shown at the clinic so the person can be tested immediately.
The idea is that a person gets pre-test information via their cellphone, which also sends them details on clinics in their area through the HIV-911 number. They can then go to a nearby testing site, get tested, and receive post-test counselling at the same place, notes Olivier.
HIV Talk doesn't use the caller's name or ID number, and no personal details are given out, although age and gender are asked so management reports can be compiled on these statistics.
Cellphone numbers will be saved on a database and ongoing behaviour change messages and HIV campaigns can be sent to remind people how to stay negative, but this is subject to their consent, says Moore.
In some cases, households or families share a single cellphone, which could create concerns around privacy. But Olivier says people need to understand that it's necessary to go for testing. “There's a high level of denial, with infected people thinking they can't have the disease. We want to support people by making information more available. If they're informed, they can at least make a better decision.”
He says privacy is an issue that must not be overemphasised. “We can't promote privacy around every corner; we cannot stay quiet any longer – it's time to discuss HIV and compare it to other infectious diseases which can either be cured or controlled.
Moore adds that because most people don't understand the difference between HIV and Aids, it has become a huge barrier to entry. “Most people don't know that HIV is manageable even though it's not curable and rather stay away from the 'death sentence' of knowing their status.” She believes confusion was created early on when HIV and Aids became an amalgamated concept and treated as one.
“The aim is to give every person the opportunity to receive this information in a confidential and comfortable environment, which is available 24/7,” states Moore.
The service may have further applications, such as during the Fifa Soccer World Cup, being held in SA next year.
HIV Talk plans to add European languages to the service for the tournament, as visitors unfamiliar with the risks of HIV and Aids enter the country.
“We may have to introduce Spanish, French, German, and Italian specifically for the World Cup because in a nation like Italy, where HIV prevalence is very low, it's not an issue in their daily lives,” says Olivier.
According to Moore, the company is working with the South African National Aids Council and Fifa World Cup medical planning teams about the possibility of adding HIV pre-test information on all SIM cards to be bought in the country at the time. “We are also collaborating with Right To Care to establish a call centre for post exposure prevention programmes,” adds Moore. If visitors suspect they may be infected, they can call the call centre and receive information and treatment from Right to Care, she explains.
HIV Talk partnered with various local and international groups to develop the campaign, including the SA Business Coalition on HIV/Aids, wireless application provider Marketel, and B-the-Future, a wapsite link providing HIV information for download on a cellphone.
By Lezette Engelbrecht, ITWeb copy editor and journalist