Lesotho’s adolescents between the ages of 10 and 24 years are among the people most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS due to poor healthcare, lack of family support, non-acceptance of long-term treatment and non-disclosure of their HIV-status to peers and family.
It is this challenge that the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation (EGPAF) recommends can be tackled through the promotion of youth-participation in peer support groups (PSGs), including counselling for adolescents living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
HIV is a virus that attacks cells which help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. It is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex (sex without a condom), or through sharing drug-injecting equipment. If left untreated, HIV can lead to the deadly Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
However, by taking anti-HIV medicine (called Anti-Retroviral Therapy or ART), people with HIV can live long and healthy lives and prevent transmitting the virus to their sexual partners. In addition, there are effective methods to prevent getting HIV through sex or drug-use, including Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).
EGPAF Lesotho has introduced PSGs with the aim of empowering and motivating HIV-positive adolescents.
The organisation has been operating in Maseru, Berea, Leribe, Mafeteng, Mohale’s Hoek, Butha-Buthe, Thaba-Tseka and Mokhotlong since 2016.
From January 2017, EGPAF, with funding from the United States President Emergency Programme for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, established adolescent centres in these eight districts.
The centres are located in the Berea Hospital, Motebang Hospital, Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, Scott Hospital, Maluti Adventist Hospital, Ntsekhe Hospital, Mafeteng Hospital and the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association.
These PSGs operate directly from the aforementioned government-supported hospitals and clinics in the said districts.
The PSGs offer HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) risk-reduction counselling; HIV-testing, care, and treatment; disclosure and adherence support; TB screening and treatment and peer-led psychosocial support from the last Saturday of every month.
The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism visited the Paki Health Centre in Mazenod and observed the youths during one of the PSG sessions.
Khotso Makoetje (pictured), an EGPAF officer working at Paki Health Centre, said the groups were formed after identifying HIV-positive youths in hospitals or clinics that are supported by the government.
“After being confirmed to be HIV-positive, we invite the adolescents and young people to join the clubs and leave when they are over 24 years. We do not force them to join; we encourage them, convince them on their advantages.”
Makoetje said the aim of the PSGs is to ensure a source of emphatic support and share positive coping strategies.
“These groups enable providers, programmes and services to be more responsive, acceptable, sustainable and relevant, encouraging HIV-positive adolescents and young people to seek and remain engaged in care,” Makoetje noted.
“Young peer-supporters, who are openly living with HIV, can fulfil a critical role in raising awareness and challenging stigma within communities and health-facilities, enhancing the quality of HIV-positive adolescent and young people services and improving the uptake of and linkages between services.
“Studies show that peer-support can improve HIV-positive adolescents and young people linkage, adherence, viral-suppression, retention and psychosocial wellbeing. Peer support groups can also provide young peer-supporters with opportunities for leadership-development, capacity-building and youth-led advocacy, helping to combat the negative effects of self-stigma and peer-pressure.”
A nursing assistant Paki Clinic, Mrs Maxencia Makara, said peer-support groups had made a positive impact in the clinic and made it easier for young people to collect their ARVs openly without having to mingle with adults.
“Some of the young people were scared to collect ARVs from the same queue with the adults. But now with the PSGs, they come to the pharmacy one-by-one and most importantly, they come on Saturdays during the PSG session.
“This is also an advantage because they no longer have to miss classes in order to collect medication.
“This contributes to a responsive and enabling service environment than can lead to improved patient outcomes and improves the coping capacity of HIV-positive adolescent and young people, creating opportunities for HIV-positive adolescent and young people to actively participate in planning, delivering and monitoring services that affect them,” Makara said. Paki clinic is currently serving about 3000 HIV-positive youths.