Higher learning, higher risk

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NUL stirs into action to slow spread of HIV among students

MASERU — When Lebo (not his real name) enrolled for a course at the National University of Lesotho in 2003 all he wanted was a degree to help him secure a job.

He was studying Public Administration and Political Science.

The degree would be his passport out of poverty.

He was committed to staying on the straight and narrow for the next four years.

He swore never to indulge in the ‘filthy’ behaviour which he had known to be associated with university students.

He was not going to be a stereotypical student.

Unfortunately this was easier said than done.

He made friends and peer pressure mounted.

Life at the university was “too fast” and its temptations too strong to ignore.

He gave in.

 Soon he got into a destructive routine of drugs, beer and sex.

Books and lectures started playing second fiddle to partying.

He would bunk lectures to go partying.

The pleasure did not last though.

It ended as abruptly as it had started.

In his second year he fell ill.

He got tested  for HIV and the results came out positive. 

 “My dreams were shattered after this discovery,” he says.

He was depressed and got sick regularly.

Sometimes he missed his lectures. 

He thought he was going to die.

He failed three courses and would not proceed to third year.

Lebo says he regretted the moment he gave in to the temptations that “come with being away from home and having some money in the pocket”. 

“In no time I was captivated by the carefree life. I started drinking a lot of alcohol. I had unprotected sex. I enjoyed it,” Lebo says.

“I dodged classes. I would not attend lectures for days and weeks. I missed assignments. I spent most of the time partying and travelling. I had made a lot of friends.

 “At first I was in denial. I never told anyone about the results. I told myself it was just a mistake. I was depressed and got sick.”

He said even though he did not have proof that he got the virus after his arrival at university, he was worried by the number of fellow students he could have infected before he knew about his status.

“I slept with many. Surely I have infected many. I feel guilty about that,” he says.

“I have ruined my life. I am carrying on with my studies but who knows for how long I am going to live.”

Lebo is just one example of students who have been infected with HIV.

Statistics show that that the age group between 15-45 years is the most affected by HIV.

College students fall into this demographic category.

In Lesotho most college students are between 18 and 25.

Lesotho does not have official statistics on the HIV prevalence in colleges but it is safe to assume that there are many who know that they are infected but have not summed up the courage to talk about it.

There are others who are infected but are not aware of their status because they have not been tested.

Many are at risk of getting infected.

Now that he is aware of the dangers Lebo says he is worried that the high incidents of casual sex among students were going to fuel the prevalence of HIV and Aids at NUL and other higher education institutions.

“There is just a lot of casual sex among students here at NUL as well as at other institutions. Most of the time unprotected sex goes with alcohol.

“There are unending nights of orgies. NUL students party with students from Lerotholi Polytechnic or Lesotho College of Education,” he said.

He said HIV was spreading fast like a veld-fire at NUL.

“The prevalence of HIV is higher than imagined in tertiary institutions. There are so many infections in just one night.”

The HIV and Aids Programme Co-ordinator at NUL, Maraka Monaphathi said the university was worried by the high prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Infections, HIV and Aids at the institution.

“The likely high prevalence of HIV is a big and worrying issue. Although we do not have new and reliable statistics, the NUL Health Clinic statistics sampled between July and September 2008 have shown that the number of infected students and staff is around 3.4 percent.

“But that is only a small number of visitors to the clinic. There is likelihood that the numbers have increased since July 2008 and that the prevalence is much higher — consistent with the national prevalence of 23.2 percent,” Monaphathi said.

If the fight against the spread of the HIV infection was not intensified, said Monaphathi, the country would lose a great number of educated youths that have the potential to be community leaders and entrepreneurs.

“If we do not fight the spread of HIV infections now, students’ lives will be shortened, and we already have low life expectancy of just 35 years. The country will lose its human resource base.”

He said it was their hope that the recently launched NUL HIV and Aids policy will help in the fight against the rate of HIV infections among the NUL community and in the country at large.

“It is our biggest hope that the policy will help fight the spread of the HIV infections. It encourages prevention, care and support, capacity building and research among others and aims to improve the lives of those who are infected.”

The 2009 NUL HIV and Aids policy aims to increase information, education and awareness among the university community regarding HIV and Aids.

It is also aimed at improving understanding regarding the prevention of HIV infection and the mitigation of the effects of HIV and Aids on infected and affected people.

Its purpose is to prevent new HIV infections among the NUL community.

It is also to prevent discrimination or stigmatisation of those affected or infected with HIV, and to facilitate improved treatment, care and support.

The Minister of Health and Social Welfare Dr Mphu Ramatlapeng said HIV and Aids were the biggest threat to the development, health and well-being of a strong workforce. 

She said the loss of human resources was a major challenge to the country’s political, social and economic development.

Said Ramatlapeng: “Like other sub-Saharan nations, Lesotho is in the middle of the devastating epidemic of HIV and Aids.

“It is our expectation that the best products of this university will take part in the global political, social, economic technological arena.

“The biggest question is how to achieve this ideal if we let our young people, and students of this university, lose many valuable hours or even die due to HIV and Aids related diseases?” 

She said the impact of the HIV infection could be bad on NUL population.

The university currently has about 12 000 registered students and about 680 staff, according to the minister.  

“If we imagine that the university prevalence is similar to the national prevalence of 23.2 percent then we would expect to have 2 500 members of this community living with HIV and all of us affected,” she said.

A 2007 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) survey revealed that only 18 percent of young males and 26 percent of young females with comprehensive knowledge on HIV were using safe prevention methods.

But the organisation’s survey of 2009 reveals some alarming numbers about the prevalence rate in this age group.

“Girls, in every age group, are the most infected; with for example, eight percent of females compared to two percent of males aged 15 -19 living with HIV.”

“Sexual activity starts as early as 12 and 14 years old for males and females respectively, and only 10 percentage of males and six percentage of females use condoms when they have sex for the first time,” the report said.

UNICEF said changing fundamental human risk-taking behaviours that continue to fuel the spread of HIV, is the ultimate goal to prevent HIV infection.

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