At the beginning of 2022, the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) announced the discovery of a new fast-paced HIV/AIDS variant in the Netherlands. This variant is referred to as Subtype-B HIV1 or the VB Variant. The VB Variant is said to be more transmissible and damaging as people with HIV who subsequently catch this variant will experience double the rate of immune system decline and are prone to developing AIDS two or three times faster after the diagnosis.
Medical doctors in South Africa have urged South Africans to remain calm about the outbreak of the VB Variant. However, it is important to note that South Africa is one of the leading countries in terms of high infection rates. According to the South African National Aids Council (SANAC), South Africa has 7.8 million people living with HIV, and only 5.4 million of those infected are on anti-retroviral therapy (ARV). The outbreak of COVID-19 did not aid this crisis.
Health-E News reported that the pandemic has significantly and negatively affected the battle against HIV/AIDS. South Africa is currently experiencing a decline in ARV consumption, and as a result, people have defaulted on their treatment because of accessability issues that were caused by constant lockdowns. This means that there are HIV-infected persons who are currently experiencing a decline in their immune system’s functionality because their viral load is going up.
South African tertiary institutions are not immune to the HIV/ AIDS crisis. It is not a secret that sex is part of university culture – as many students start exploring their sexuality in university spaces. Some students are in committed relationships and do not see the need to have protected intercourse, while others are actively involved in hook-up culture. These mentioned reasons and many others, contribute to the high HIV infection rates amongst students in South Africa. The New Age in 2015 reported that 41% of South African students in FET colleges are living with HIV, while University World News also reported in 2010 that 3,4 % of students in universities are living with HIV. This is a clear indication that due to the outbreak of the VB Variant, greater HIV/AIDS awareness is needed for South African students.
The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS, and Gender (CSA&G) Programme Coordinator, Chris Joubert, spoke to PDBY about the prevalence of the VB Variant and the possible effects it will have on the sex lives of students. Joubert stated that the UP’s Health Department has services that cater to students’ health in HIV/AIDS-related matters. The university offers free HIV testing services and referral letters that assist students that test positive with getting their introduction to treatment. Joubert added that students over the years have been making use of the service, however since the pandemic started, there has been a great decline in the usage of the service. “Historically yes there has been a lot of interest in the service, not just from students but also from the staff and contractors […] a lot of people do test with us, but I think what made it really difficult during COVID-19 was that there were a lot of blocks to get into the university and it became very difficult to offer walk-in services” stated Joubert. Joubert explained that with regard to the infection rates and statistics of the UP community: “it is a bit tricky [to estimate] because when you look at the university, it is quite a large population and a large portion of those people [are] not testing on campus, however, they could be testing elsewhere […] the number of infections is a fair amount, we are talking a few thousand per year”. Additionally, Joubert stated that historically the infection rate has always been below or at one percent of people testing positive, “but of course this is not to say that almost no one has it, it’s just based on those who actually test” cautioned Joubert.
According to Joubert, the CSA&G office, to a large extent, gets an influx of students who come in to make inquiries about sex, its safety, and sexuality saying that “overall, apart from people who come in for testing, there are certain people who really just come in and inquire about specific things and just want to have that conversation, as well as certain residences will also invite us along with other entities at the university to come and talk about safe sex, consent, and different things that essentially affect sex and sexualities”. With regard to raising awareness about the VB Variant, CSA&G is currently in the process of reintegrating their volunteers to the testing services, and with that comes constant “recapping” of what HIV/AIDS is so far and coming up with certain campaigns to raise awareness around the new HIV/AIDS variant. “The variant comes with certain things that [are] more aggressive and goes from the HIV stage to the AIDS stage a lot faster. By all accounts is it very possible that the variant is already in South Africa, because, as travel goes, it is very possible that it has already entered into South Africa” stated Joubert. Joubert went on to say that this new variant is not really a game-changer because even though it is aggressive, the same procedure that will be used to prevent HIV infections will be used to treat the virus once a person is infected.
Joubert indicated that CSA&G and the health clinic currently do not have an ARV, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) or Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) roll-out because of licensing issues that are difficult to resolve. However, the office has a strong referral system that helps newly tested positive people with getting their medications from any public or private health facility in the country. Joubert reckons that the impact of this variant on the sex lives of students will be a positive one, provided that there is enough awareness out there. “We try to focus on not just informing people on HIV and other related things when it comes to sex, but also having conversations around practicing safe sex, that usually comes with people being open to things such as testing themselves, testing with partners, having conversations around consent and safety and in that regard it would create a lot of safer space for people to have sex in” motivated Joubert.
The CSA&G offers testing services to the UP community from Monday to Friday, between 09:00 and 15:00. The office is situated in the Akanyang Building.
Image: Jaime Lamb