File photo: African News Agency (ANA)

JOHANNESBURG - More than 10 million men have been reached through health NGOs Right to Care’s Me1st campaign, launched in November last year to empower men to put their health first, get tested for HIV and go onto antiretroviral treatment if they test positive.

Right to Care is a non-profit organisation that supports and delivers prevention, care and treatment services for HIV and TB. 

Through technical assistance, Right to Care supports the private sector, the Department of Health and the Department of Correctional Services. 

In addition, through direct service delivery, Right to Care treats patients for HIV, TB and sexually transmitted infections

The NGO said men who have sex with men, also referred to as MSM, faced devastating stigma and discrimination in society but especially when seeking healthcare services. 

“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. 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," said Andrew Lethole, MSM Marketing Coordinator at Right to Care.

Right to Care said as a key population disproportionately affected by HIV and sexually transmitted infections, the Me1st movement focused on reaching as many HIV positive men as possible and then linking them to anti-retroviral therapy and care. 

The campaign is being funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and rolled out by Right to Care, which is working 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," the NGO said.

"HIV prevalence in the general population is at 19% in South Africa, however, among 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."

They said Me1st.co.za was interactive with a confidential chatline handled by qualified counsellors 24-7, many of whom were MSM themselves, while the WhatsApp line (072 637 6212) had 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,” Lethole said.

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 and Empowerment Coalition of Transgender Women in Africa (SHE) in East London and Life Line in Kimberly.

The Anova Health Institute has implemented a complementary MSM campaign in Johannesburg and Nelspruit, in 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.”

Right to Care said while South Africa’s constitution protects the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, many men who had sex with men faced 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 well-being above everything else, which include messages of 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 and getting help for mental well-being if needed and living judgement free."

The NGO said that anyone who needed more information about the Me1st activations could visit www.me1st.co.za or www.facebook.com/me1stSA/ or contact the Whatsapp line (072 637 6212).

African News Agency (ANA)