USF College of Public Health graduate student Ruth Sanon is serving as a Peace Corps (PC) volunteer in Cameroon where she recently took part in a week long ‘HIV Boot Camp.’
The boot camp, according to Sanon, allowed PC volunteers to present and exchange best practices, learn about the evolving nature of the HIV pandemic, share resources to carry out evidence based interventions, and to draft up country specific action plans that will help target priority populations.
“With the current global HIV initiative, led by the United Nations Programme on HIV (UNAIDS), to have an HIV-free generation by 2030, [Peace Corps] is investing in their volunteers to serve as grassroots specialist to improve skills and methods in working in HIV prevention and treatment,” Sanon said, who is earning her MPH from the Department of Global Health.
The Peace Corps Office of Global Health and HIV/AIDS hosted eleven African countries and selected highly motivated and distinguished volunteers from each to partake in a week-long camp.
Sanon said one reoccurring topic that was highlighted throughout the seminar was the need to target and gear HIV prevention and treatment awareness education toward young boys and men.
“With the data indicating that young girls are at high risk for having sex with older men who are HIV positive, it was stressed that interventions targeting men were essential to combating the HIV epidemic in Africa,” she said.
Two notable toolkits, the Men as Partners (MAPS) and Boyz 2 Men manuals, referred to men becoming more active in the dialogue of sexual health.
According to Sanon, the MAPS program focuses on recruiting older, influential men in the community, between the ages of 25 to 45 to spark conversations and train them on gender norms, HIV/STIs, gender based violence, and healthy relationship skills.
After the training, they are given the task to step out into their communities and facilitate monthly health talks on gender issues and the importance of getting tested, as well as treatment options that permit people to live healthy lives.
The Boyz 2 Men program targets young adolescent boys around the ages of 15 to 24 and teaches them life skills, such as respect and responsibility, as well as gender roles and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
“Both of the latter frameworks are evidence based and use many strategies to create an open space of dialogue,” Sanon said. “The long term outcome goal is positive behavior changes, such as reducing high risk sexual activities, to lower chances of contracting and transmitting HIV, and greater usage of health care services in their communities.”
Sanon also said another best practice method was for PCV’s to use youth-friendly approaches to attract adolescents to learn more about their sexual responsibilities and the changing nature of their bodies.
“Youth friendly services focuses on encouraging and uplifting adolescents, using creative arts and imageries to attract their attentions, and most importantly treating them as young adults instead of toddlers,” she said. “Youth-friendly services can be seen in places such as health clubs, hospitals, and clinics.”
According to Sanon, the overarching message taken from the ‘HIV Boot Camp’ was the importance of knowing one’s target population and using innovative and engaging methods to transfer knowledge and teach new skills.
“One of the most significant messages from the sessions were proper planning before conducting any projects and ensuring that community support is a part of every process,” Sanon said.
Equally important, Sanon said, is the importance of monitoring and evaluating throughout the duration of any project to ensure the goals and objectives are driving forces for each activity.
“To have an HIV-free generation we, as public health representatives, must work together to support effective and efficient methods,” Sanon said. “To control the pandemic blind testing campaigns should become a thing of the past, and the future of testing should be specific at targeting key/priority populations: adolescent’s girls/young women between the ages of 14-25, orphans and vulnerable children, pregnant women and older men. The more specific these programs are, the greater the chances of accomplishing our goal of having an HIV-free generation.”
Story by Ruth Sanon and Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health