Editorial Comment: Mandatory HIV testing for kids ill-conceived

The decision by the Harare Municipality to embark on a mandatory HIV testing of pupils in all council-run primary schools as part of a health education, is ill-conceived and could entrench stigma and traumatise those suspected to be infected.

Media reports last week claimed the Harare Municipality had announced that it was embarking on a mandatory HIV testing programme in all council-run primary schools as part of its health education exercise.

Days after launch, the programme met fierce resistance from parents who feel the initiative is ill-advised and don’t understand why it should be a priority of council when residents are faced with critical challenges such as lack of water and erratic waste collection.

Some parents said they feared that their children could be used as guinea pigs, while their rights would be violated.

This fear is quite understandable in a society where stigma remains one of the biggest impediments to voluntary HIV testing and efforts to combat new HIV infections.

Programmers around HIV and Aids say stigma alone threatens to erode the gains made in the fight against the epidemic in Zimbabwe and the world at large. Those infected with the virus are often shunned and discriminated against.

Cases abound of individuals who on being found to be infected with HIV were forced out of their jobs, while others were ostracised from communities and families that should have been giving them moral and psychological support.

And all this continues more than three decades since the first case of HIV was recorded in Zimbabwe, and where treatment and information are readily available.

It is difficult to imagine the consequential effects of testing young children who barely know what it means to live positively with the virus.

It would be disastrous, to say the least.

It also defies the logic why the municipal authority wants to put the cart before the horse by pushing for testing before carrying out a comprehensive education campaign on sexuality and HIV in schools.

Without dismissing council’s noble initiative, the programme is ill-conceived and poses serious challenges on the welfare and well-being of children who test positive, even when they might not be at fault. It is common knowledge that there are children unfortunate to be born HIV-positive.

Apart from the trauma, most schools do not yet have trained supporting and teaching staff to handle such delicate issues once a child tests positive for HIV at school. Most barely have even rudimentary training to offer counselling services to both pupils and their parents.

The information systems in schools are too porous to handle delicate information on HIV, which could destroy the confidence of the pupils and affect their academic performance, once it goes public.

Let us also bear in mind that we have parents who are grappling with how to inform their children born with HIV about their status, and the situation can only get worse when such information is placed in a suspension file somewhere in the school corridors!

The results alone and the cost of handling a project of such magnitude might prove to be burdensome for financially hamstrung councils, which are struggling to deliver basic services such as water to residents.

It is a mammoth project that needs to be backed up by proper and effective support systems such as trained counselling staff, adequate monitoring structures for a continuous anti-retroviral therapy as well as well-coordinated small health centres within the schools.

Noble as the idea is, it would be prudent for council to go back to the drawing board and involve stakeholders and programmers best equipped to deal with the issue, so that the country does not face the same resistance it encountered with voluntary HIV testing and counselling.

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