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March 10, 2008

Program Aims to Bring “A Good Life” and Prevent HIV Among South African Youth

bennish

Michael Bennish (right) speaks to
 students in South Africa. *

Mpilonhle (pronounced em-pee-lon-shlay) is a Zulu term that in English means “a good life.” It’s also the name of an innovative program that operates in South Africa’s rural Umkhanyakude District and aims to help adolescents achieve a good life and avoid HIV through health education and computer-skills training.

Mpilonhle relies on specially designed mobile units, or trailers, to deliver trained health educators directly to schools in remote communities. The brightly-colored vehicles also include computer laboratories equipped with 24 computers.

“We didn’t want to be the HIV unit that comes to town, because HIV still carries a certain stigma. We wanted it to be more like a large event like when the state fair comes to town—make it more festive,” said Michael Bennish, MD, executive director of Mpilonhle. “The computer lab works as a hook to get a lot of kids interested in the health messages. It also gives them the opportunity to learn to use computers.”

Bennish, now a senior associate in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, developed the concept for Mpilonhle in 2006. He saw a need for more HIV education and prevention, particularly for adolescents. “In the setting where we work, men and women have almost a 50 percent chance of becoming infected with HIV,” said Bennish. “Despite that [risk], these kids get maybe only two hours of HIV instruction in five years of secondary education.”

mobile_unit

Bennish describes Mpilonhle as a “multidimensional” program that brings health education and life skills to schools in a friendly way. Every student receives six hours of instruction on health issues, including HIV, obesity, high blood pressure and sexually transmitted diseases from a trained instructor. The classes are broken into four 90-minute sessions. The curriculum reinforces the life skills training already offered by the South African government.

Students also receive an individual one-hour session with a health counselor. The counselor can answer questions, provide HIV testing, distribute condoms, or refer a student to a nurse or local health facility if more care is needed.

Perhaps the biggest draw for students is the mobile unit’s onboard computer lab. Each student receives four 90-minute sessions of instruction in the computer lab, but the computers are also available to the students at other times. Many of the computer materials were developed by students at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

According to Bennish, nearly 80 percent of the students enrolled in the Mpilonhle program have chosen to undergo HIV testing. “We were really surprised at the rate of uptake,” said Bennish. He will continue to evaluate the program to determine if the program is effective in preventing HIV and if it can be utilized in other settings.

Mpilonhle provides services to approximately 10,000 young people who range in age from 12 to 22. The program received its initial support from Oprah’s Angel Network, a charitable foundation established by television host Oprah Winfrey, and from actress Charlize Theron’s Africa Outreach Project and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. The first unit began operation in October 2007 and was featured on the March 10 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. PEPFAR is providing funding for two additional mobile units that are expected to be in operation in the summer.

As Bennish notes, young people can establish patterns of sexual behavior and risk taking during their adolescent years and these patterns can stay with them through adulthood. “It’s important to try and change their behaviors and encourage those behaviors that will lessen their risk as they move on to adulthood. Very little is being done to reach these rural kids at  this time.”

*All Mpilonhle images copyright 2007 Oprah's Angel Network and the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project

For additional information, please contact Tim Parsons at 410-955-7619 or at tmparson@jhsph.edu.