Researchers from the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD), based on the Westville campus, showcased UKZN’s research excellence at the recent 9th SA AIDS Conference, with their work which has influenced national government policy.

Dr Gavin George, HEARD’s Programme Leader for Health Systems Strengthening, presented on the South Africa School-Based Sexuality and HIV Prevention Education Activity, a PEPFAR-funded USAID initiative aimed at reducing new HIV infections among learners. The programme works with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) by assisting it to implement high quality, evidence-informed sexuality and HIV prevention education programmes. The presentation covered the development of, and educator training in, a package of Scripted Lesson Plans for Grades 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12 to support educators in effective delivery of comprehensive sexuality education in the classroom. George shared the lessons learnt at a satellite session hosted by the DBE and the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) titled: Comprehensive Sexuality Education – A Game Changer in HIV Prevention within the Education Sector.The project, which is still in pilot phase, involves schools in five provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal. More than 4 500 teachers have been trained on the 80 activity-based scripted lesson plans, aligned to the Life Skills / Life Orientation Annual Teaching Plans. ‘These are rights-based, scientifically accurate, age appropriate, contextual and relevant lesson plans which to date have reached almost 300 000 learners,’ said George.

One of the objectives of the programme is to create linkages to health services for learners. However, accessing such services has proven difficult due to fear of stigma and discrimination. To remedy this, the National Human Rights Plan for HIV and TB was launched as a much anticipated precursor to the conference. Speaking on behalf of South African Deputy President and SANAC Chairman, Mr David Mabuza, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said this comprehensive plan aims to address stigma and discrimination against people living with and affected by HIV and TB, particularly with regard to access to essential civic and health services. It gives effect to Goal 5 of the National Strategic Plan HIV, TB and STIs, which is to ground the response to HIV, TB and STIs in human rights principles and approaches.

The Human Rights Plan was informed by an extensive Global Fund-commissioned baseline study on human rights and gender barriers to HIV and TB services, a project led by HEARD Senior Researcher, Mr Russell Armstrong in collaboration with independent researcher and human rights advocate, Miss Maria Stacey. HEARD’s Professor Tim Quinlan, researcher Mr Sean Beckett, as well as a core team of independent experts from across South Africa were also involved. South Africa was one of 20 countries in which this research was conducted as part of the Global Fund’s “Breaking Down Barriers” initiative. HEARD led studies in five of the countries, including South Africa.

Armstrong presented findings at various sessions at the conference, while George and HEARD PhD student, Ms Nosipho Makhakhe, presented a poster on the role of peer educators in encouraging PrEP uptake among sex workers in Durban. The trio showcased why HEARD remains an important interface between research and policy.

Note: This article was originally published in UKZN’s online newsletter Indaba Online.