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Students increasingly a target of HIV-prevention campaigns

[Senegal] The mission of the Society for Women against AIDS in Africa (SWAA) is to empower women to prevent and mitigate the impacts of HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Ibrahim Thioye was confident as he stood in line last week to be tested for HIV.

“No fear or apprehension whatsoever,” the university law student said as he queued with scores of fellow scholars to get tested in response to a call by student volunteers known as ‘Leo Club.’

Thioye says he knows all about how HIV is transmitted, and besides, he is a “practising and faithful Muslim abstaining from sex before marriage.”

HIV-prevention activists wish that more people would be as bold about learning their HIV status. To date only about 10 percent of Senegal’s 11 million people have been tested.

Encouraging the test is a big part of a recent push by ‘Leo Club’ volunteers - of Lions Club International - and other organisations that have recently stepped up HIV-awareness campaigns on university campuses in the capital, Dakar.

Health officials say getting youths tested is a crucial step to keeping the country’s infection rate of about 1.6 percent - low by West African standards - in check.

HIV prevalence rates in Senegal as elsewhere in the region are extrapolated from testing among pregnant women. But medical officials say a new health survey, based on the general population, shows most new infections in 2005 were in people aged between 15 and 24.

According to the UN’s latest global AIDS statistics, released last month, countries with low HIV rates such as Senegal have not seen a decrease in the pandemic. So activists are warning that such countries cannot afford to be complacent.

"We must not wait for the AIDS pandemic to shoot up before we react," said Baba Goumbala, executive secretary of the country’s National Alliance Against AIDS, a coalition of Senegalese NGOs and community-based associations. "There seems to be a relaxation of prevention in countries where good results have been achieved," he said.

To mark World AIDS Day, Leo Club student volunteers for the first time took to the campus of Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University, armed with HIV-prevention brochures and condoms, along with medical teams and HIV-testing materials.

“This is good for a start,” said Alpha Ndiaye of Leo Club as he surveyed the group of students seeking information and getting in line to be tested.

Manning a table stacked with hundreds of books and pamphlets and over 1,000 condoms free for the taking, he said, “I’m glad to see young men thinking about protecting themselves and a number of young women coming and asking questions about HIV infection.”

Papa Salif Sow, head of infectious diseases at Fann Hospital, said young women in particular must be targeted in HIV awareness campaigns, as most of the new cases among 15- to 24-year-olds are female. “We will focus more and more on protecting young women,” he told IRIN.

Back at the university another student in line to be tested identified himself only as John. Wearing a small crucifix around his neck, he says facing up to the challenge of AIDS is part of his Christian faith. “I have confidence in myself and in my girlfriend to be faithful. And we use condoms, every time. Not a worry - we protect ourselves.”

For those not so eager to undergo the test, health workers try to put across the message that testing positive for HIV is not a death sentence.

“With testing, people no longer need to be afraid,” Awa Diop, president of the family education club at Dakar’s John F Kennedy High School recently told a group of students. “If a result is positive, treatment is available.”

And Ndeye Sane, who heads a youth group with the pan-African Society for Women Against AIDS in Africa, says testing brings peace of mind.

“It is better to know one’s status than to continue living in doubt.”

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