Windhoek — Former American ambassador to Namibia, Thomas Daughton, says Namibia should make HIV testing on learners mandatory if efforts to get teenage boys, between 15 and 19 years old, to test on their own are not successful.
Speaking to New Era recently, Daughton, who left Namibia for the U.S. yesterday, said one of the challenges for Namibia is that men between 15 and 29 years old are reluctant to be tested for HIV.
He said there are different reasons for this, however, culture is one of them. Despite being one of eight countries with a high burden of new HIV infections, Namibia has made great strides in the fight against HIV/AIDS and is close to epidemic control, noted Daughton.
"We've talked with the health ministry about testing in schools. The government is wary of going down that route. Botswana, which is another high burden country that's getting very close to reaching epidemic control, did mandatory HIV testing in schools," said Daughton.
The Namibian government does not have the 'we want to tell you how to live your life approach', and as a result is not keen on the idea, he said.
"I think there is a recognition that at some point it might become necessary, but that's only if we can't reach the goal of getting more young Namibian men tested for HIV, using the other methods we're trying," said Daughton.
Testing for HIV among the 15-19 age group is so low that award winning music artist, The Dogg, real name Martin Morocky, who is a HIV/AIDS ambassador, encourages his fans, many whom are young people, to get tested for HIV.
"That was the age group we were aiming at with the circumcision campaign and it worked quite well," added Daughton.
The girls that same age don't have a problem with testing for HIV although their turnout is not as high as for the other groups, observed Daughton.
Asked if the issue of parental consent does not play a role in this, Daughton said that is a contributing factor, however, not to a great extent.
"Unless they get hurt or seriously sick - 15, 16 and 17-year-old boys don't go to the doctor," said Daughton.
To encourage these young people to get tested, the U.S. Government through Peace Corps volunteers who are teachers will, in the next school term, stress to learners the importance of testing for HIV, in the life skills classes, said the diplomat.
Many Peace Corps volunteers teach in secondary schools. "The parents with relatively few exceptions don't have any problems with their children being tested. So, it's a matter of getting past that embarrassment barrier," said Daughton laughingly, adding that he understands pretty well why young people would not go to their parents for consent to get tested.
"The implications of saying that I want to get tested means that you're doing something that your parents may not know about and that's definitely an issue."
But despite progress made, HIV remains the number one cause of death in Namibia with a recorded average of 3,900 deaths annually. Also, the national HIV prevalence rate for 15-49 year-olds is at 13.3 percent.
In order to meet the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) 90, 90, 90 targets, much remains to be done, said Daughton, adding that the last stride seems to be the hardest.
According to UNAIDS, by 2020, 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status. By 2020, 90 percent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy. By 2020, 90 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.
Furthermore, Daughton said there has been successes in reaching out and testing key populations, namely sex workers, men who have sex with men, and truck drivers.
"We've had pretty good successes with the key populations in Namibia. Men who have sex with men tend to be more willing to test and go on treatment, than the average Namibian male out on the street," said Daughton.
"Most of the other countries in the region aren't like that. But it's also because the number of people involved is small and we can focus more resources on a smaller group - and there is more impact that way.