Western Cape Health MEC Theuns Botha. Photo: Phandulwazi Jikelo

The South African government’s campaign to extend HIV testing in schools could be implemented as early as Ferbruary 2011 if everything goes according to plan.

The national Department of Health said it was finalising plans and was in constant consultation with the Department of Education authorities on how the testing drive would work.

Health Department spokesman

Fidel Hadebe described the rollout of an HIV counselling and testing (HCT) campaign in schools as overdue, saying the extension of the campaign to pupils was “something we fully support”.

The testing would be voluntary.

Hadebe said his department and the SA National Aids Council, including the children’s sector, welcomed the recent announcement by minister of basic education Angie Motshekga regarding the pending launch of the HCT campaign in schools.

But there was a need to ensure that the programme was tailor-made for children, taking into account issues of confidentiality and support.

“The needs of learners for child-specific support and follow-up requires the HCT campaign to adopt extra preparatory measures to ensure the best interests of the children involved.

“We will be dealing with children here. Our strategy needs to be clear on how the campaign is going to be dealing with issues of confidentiality.

“We need to know what to do if a learner is found to be HIV-positive for instance. We need to be very careful and clear,” Hadebe said.

Although the implementation date was set for February, he warned this wasn’t guaranteed and that there could be delays due to “these special measures”.

“The idea is to start early, but at the same time we don’t want to rush for the sake of rushing. We need to ensure that the benefit for learners is maximised.”

He added that, apart from encouraging young people to know their status, the campaign was also about bringing services to pupils who spent most of their time in class, and had less time to go to clinics to test.

“The message we are trying to bring across to learners is: if you are negative please stay negative, but to those that might test positive we are saying that we will give them the necessary support in terms of counselling and treatment.”

Faiza Steyn, spokeswoman for the provincial health department, said the campaign in the province would be carried out as part of a wellness day, targeting high schools.

In an effort to avoid disruptions to the school programme, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) would carry out the testing only on weekends and during school holidays. The testing would be done at private spaces at schools. Consent would be needed from parents.

“So as not to infringe on school learner time, and also to not have kids teasing kids, we will invite parents, teachers and all others to join in. The plan is that the WCED head of department’s office will put out a request to school governing bodies to identify a day for the year.

“They will inform her office and in turn communicate with this office to arrange it. The same model of HIV counselling and testing will apply to all who access this service,” Steyn said.

The province said it was also doing well with its HCT in clinics, having reached 465 232 people by the end of November 2010.

Health MEC Theuns Botha said it was important to expose as many people as possible to the testing campaign.

“We are aware of the sensitivities of working with learners, and there are procedures in place to protect their privacy,” he said.

Education MEC Donald Grant encouraged all parents and pupils to co-operate with the campaign.

“The Western Cape Education Department is pleased to join the health department in mounting this campaign in the Western Cape. We are pleased that the HIV infection rate has dropped in the Western Cape, but we can never relax our guard,” he said. - Cape Argus