More students being treated for sex infections - but is it a bad thing?
While clinics are worried by an upward trend, they say it may be because their awareness campaigns are working
More than 4,000 university students were referred to hospitals in 2017 after contracting sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis.
This number excludes those students who were treated on the spot at university clinics for STIs that were immediately treatable.
Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, director of the Higher Education and Training Hiv/Aids Programme (HEAIDS), said the 4,000 hospital referrals could be an underestimation since this was a young population in which unprotected sex was very common.
“Considering the vulnerability factor of universities and our student age group, the chances are that this is an underestimated figure. It’s not a representation of the prevalence as such but still 3.6% [4,040 students] is significant.”
A total of 112,236 out of the more than a million university students were screened for STIs in 2017.
HEAIDS, a non-profit company that is funded by the department of higher education, is responsible for developing and providing HIV/TB/STI and sexual reproductive health programmes to students at universities and technical and vocational education and training colleges.
The company's flagship programme, First Things First, provides HIV/TB and STI testing and screening services through mobile clinics that are accessible to universities and colleges on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, despite the University of Johannesburg dishing out more than 1 million male condoms and 50,000 female condoms in 2017, the number of students who contracted STIs increased by 148, from 1,148 in 2016 to 1,296 last year.
Sister Molimi Geya, UJ’s head of primary healthcare services, admitted that the increase in the number of students who contracted STIs may be an indication that more students were engaging in risky sexual behaviour.
“The increase in STIs treated at the clinic can be attributed to the increased awareness programmes in place throughout the year. This has resulted in more students using the clinic facilities instead of remaining untreated.”
Geya said its First Year Experience was another platform used by the university to inform students of the risks they are likely to be exposed to and the support services that are available.
Unlike the majority of the other universities, UJ disclosed statistics on students who contracted STIs in its annual report.
Ahluwalia said STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis were always referred for proper evaluation and treatment because some needed longer or invasive treatment.
“Through a screening exercise you can’t diagnose an STI.”
He said their focus was not on the prevalence of STIs but on whether the student was receiving treatment.
“The number of positives is not important, it’s about how many negatives we are reaching. A negative is also very sensitive for us because we know in the second or third year they can become positive.”
He said the biggest difficulty was “linkage to care” and making sure the student was adhering to treatment.
He said that sometimes students engaged in sex over the weekends and came to clinics on the Monday asking for the morning-after pill, which is commonly known as emergency contraception.
“This worries us because students are coming to ask for the morning-after pill but they’re not asking for an HIV test. It was unprotected sex that happened.”