South Africa

Universities 'captive platforms' for innovative HIV intervention

Universities 'captive platforms' for innovative HIV intervention

DURBAN – Higher education institutions should be viewed as "captive platforms" for innovative interventions that could stop the spread of HIV, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its technologies needing to be embraced in the process.  

This was according to professor Refilwe Phaswana-Mafuya, who was speaking at the 9th South African Aids Conference on Wednesday.  

The conference – being held at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban - started on Tuesday and will end on Friday.

Phaswana-Mafuya said that the Fourth Industrial Revolution had brought with it unprecedented scientific, social and digital innovations and technologies, and that these came with “exciting capabilities, incredible possibilities and limitless opportunities”.

But, she said, included in the equation were unanticipated challenges, unknown impacts and unforeseen consequences.

Medical innovations and new technologies had certainly transformed the landscape of HIV testing and treatment, but South Africa was still battling with high infection rates in young men and women.

The conference heard during the opening plenary on Tuesday that an estimated 231,000 new HIV infections were recorded in 2017 among people aged two-years and above, with 122,000 being female.

Youth between 15 and 24 years were viewed as a particular concern, with 88,000 new infections recorded in 2017. Infection rates among girls were three times higher than boys.

While there had been a 17 percent decline in incidents from 2012 to 2017, there had been an 11 percent increase of HIV infections among young boys.  

According to the World Health Organisation, it is the leading cause of death among young people aged between 10 and 24 in Africa.

Phaswana-Mafuya said that the data were an indication of the “magnitude of the epidemic” and that higher education platforms needed to invest in thought provoking techniques and innovations to arrest the trend.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp needed to be “exploited” by tertiary education institutions and utilised in the fight against the epidemic, she said. 

“We must not let the technologies surpass us because then we become irrelevant.”

“We need innovations and technologies for reduction in HIV transmission, technologies and innovations for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of HIV and Aids, innovative models that can improve health outcomes for young people,” she said.

Examples of innovations included self-testing for HIV, which allowed for young people to be tested in non-clinical settings. This decreased stigmatisation and led to an increase in testing. 

Other innovations included point of care testing, microbicides, vaccines, robotic ARV dispensers, online platforms, podcasts and chatbots.

The technologies had to be viewed holistically, said Phaswana-Mafuya, which included how they were applied in the real world and how those who would use them viewed them.

“The technologies must be useable and acceptable to the people,” she said, and called on institutions of higher education to provide leadership in this approach.