Dramatic increase in HIV testing among men who have sex with men.

Health NGO Right to Care says that its Me1st campaign has reached over 10-million men in South Africa since it was launched in November last year.

The campaign aims to empower men who have sex with men (MSM) to put their health first, get tested for HIV and go onto antiretroviral treatment if they test positive.

MSM face devastating stigma and discrimination in society but especially when seeking healthcare services, said the organisation. 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, 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 7.2 million people currently living with HIV. UNAIDS recently released a report showing that 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.

“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,” said Andrew Lethole, MSM Marketing Coordinator at Right to Care says. “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 has 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,” said 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 Department of Health 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,” said Lethole.

While South Africa’s constitution protects the rights of LGBTI people, many MSM 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.

The Me1st campaign puts MSMs wellbeing above everything else. Messages include:

• Knowing my status with regular HIV, TB and STI screening and to know my rights.
• Choosing Me1st affiliated clinics.
• Educating myself on my sexual health and safe sex.
• Being on treatment if I am HIV positive.
• Using a condom every time.
• Asking my partners if they know their status.
• Getting help for mental wellbeing if needed and living judgement free.

For more information and to find about Me1st activations taking place visit www.me1st.co.za or www.facebook.com/me1stSA/ or contact the Whatsapp line (072 637 6212).

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