Uganda is one of the countries pursuing the UNAids 90-90-90 global target which aims at ensuring that 90 per cent of all people living with HIV know their status, 90 per cent of all people diagnosed with HIV infection receive sustained anti-retroviral therapy and 90 per cent of all people receiving anti-retroviral therapy have viral suppression by 2020.
To achieve this target, we need a well-coordinated concerted effort from all stakeholders, starting with the donor community through the private and public sectors to the general public.
A substantial number of new HIV/Aids infections occurring among young people is partly attributed to risky behaviors such as early onset of unprotected sex, multiple concurrent sexual partnerships coupled with substance abuse.
Statistics from UNAids reveal that about 65,000 female adolescents (aged 10-19) live with HIV in Uganda compared to about 49,000 male adolescents. This trend must change if Uganda is to have a healthy and productive population.
The insight that the drivers of the epidemic among young people are behavioral in nature shapes our interventions as leaders in strategic communication.
Understanding factors related to HIV transmission, behaviour and practices is invaluable in designing appropriate social and behaviour change communication (SBCC).
SBCC is an interactive process to develop tailored messages and approaches using a variety of communication channels to promote positive behaviours; sustain individual, community, and societal behaviour change.
The 2014 HIV/Aids Uganda country progress report decried limited funding for comprehensive social and behaviour change communication despite low HIV/Aids comprehensive knowledge.
The percentage of women aged 15-24 who correctly identified ways of preventing sexual transmission of HIV and who rejected major misconceptions about HIV transmission stood at only 35.7 per cent.
Behaviour change is a gradual process. In order to sustain the observed changes or effects in adolescents’ behavior and attitudes towards HIV/Aids, information flow is very important. With limited correct, consistent and timely age-appropriate information, it is difficult to influence positive behaviours among young people.
In 2015, Uganda Health Marketing Group and UNFPA run a social and behavior change communication campaign survey using a condom promotion campaign dubbed ‘If it is not on, it is not safe’, targeting youths between 18 and 24 years.
The survey observed that 80.3 per cent of youths reformed their sexual behaviors after being exposed to radios, 23.8 per cent to televisions and 23.1 per cent to billboards. Only 6.8 per cent of the respondents had been exposed to the campaign via interpersonal communication channels.
Based on participatory formative research with adolescents, the Obulamu adolescent sub-campaign named ‘What’s Up’ developed a series of print, audio and visual messages to address the unique sexual and reproductive health needs of this audience.
The campaign messages trigger self-reflection, dialogue and action towards desired adolescent behaviors such as skills to navigate relationships; pregnancy and HIV prevention; partner reduction; safe male circumcision; HIV testing, care and treatment; and early TB detection and treatment.
In order to intensify the campaigns, we need to scale-up age- and audience-appropriate social and behaviour change interventions including targeting adolescents (both in and out of school) and young people.
We need to avail adolescents with necessary information through different fora such as interpersonal communication at home and schools , radio programmes with role models, community outreaches as well as information, education and communication (IEC) materials which will enable them to make more informed decisions.
This will also allay myths and misconceptions about HIV among them. Campaign efforts should be continuous in order to ensure constant exposure to messages, which is crucial for sustaining behavior change among young people.
Government leadership and ownership is critical to the successful roll-out of behaviour change campaigns and sustenance of partner gains and efforts, district ownership of the campaign activities greatly contributes to the success of the campaign. The advent of technology has also posed a threat to our youthful population, but with clear plans, it can help to beef up the behaviour change campaigns.
The National HIV/Aids Strategic Plan 2015/2020 indicates a missed opportunity in schools where a fair proportion of young boys and girls spend majority of their time and could be reached with HIV and Aids messages through civic education.
Schools have very organized systems for information flow and shape the behavior of young people, notably making information and communication education programmes part of the school curriculum or community initiatives aimed at fighting HIV/Aids will go a long way in reducing prevalence among this vulnerable group.
Real change begins with you reading this article, making a pledge today to make a difference in the lives of the young people around you by providing age-appropriate information and support to young people to promote positive healthy behaviours and live the Good Life.
The author is the managing director of Uganda Health Marketing Group (UHMG).