JUSTINE MWIINGA, Lusaka
ABOUT 11.6 percent Zambians aged between 15-59 years are infected with HIV with around 46, 000 people becoming infected annually, according to the Zambia Population Based HIV Impact Assessment (ZAMPHIA) 2015-2016 report.
To avert new HIV infections and improve care for those living with the virus, the Ministry of Health has placed greater emphasis on scaling up HIV combination prevention services, that enable individuals to maintain their HIV-negative status as well as improve access to quality treatment and care services, particularly through HIV testing, counselling and treatment (HTCT)
As part of the national efforts to hold back the tide, new HIV infections, particularly among young people, the National HIV/AIDS/STI/TB Council (NAC), with support from UNICEF, is currently sponsoring radio discussions on sexuality, reproductive health and rights for adolescents and young people in all the 10 provinces.
The programmes are aimed at reducing the vulnerabilities of sexually active young people from risks of HIV Infection, sexually transmitted Infections (STIs) and other health complications, as well as contributing to reduction of teenage pregnancies and early marriages.
NAC commissioned a monitoring team to three radio stations in Muchinga, Northern and Luapula provinces from February 14-17, 2018 to assess the possible impact of the radio programmes called Test Your Life on the target audience.
Mpika community radio station in Muchinga province was born in 2009 following its registration with the Registrar of Societies and hit the airwaves two years later with test transmission using broadcasting equipment provided by UNICEF, which at that time was concerned about the health needs of children.
Station manager Allan Dumingu told the NAC team that the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) restricts community radio stations to using 500 watts capacity transmitters, which can only cover a radius of 150 kilometres.
He said the current size of the transmitter only enables the radio station to cover three quarters of Mpika. The transmission is further hampered by the hilly terrain. Mr Dumingu disclosed that the radio station has since acquired a 1,500 watts transmitter and is awaiting approval of the upgrade from IBA to extend the coverage beyond 150 kilometres.
The station has established 20 listener groups with 20 members each to help provide feedback to the Test Your Life radio programmes featuring adolescents and young people discussing sexual reproductive health and rights.
The frequently asked questions on the 10 of the 26-week series of radio programmes aired so far evolve around condoms and HIV testing services. Callers seek answers on what percentage of protection against HIV infection is offered by condom use and where HIV testing services are offered.
Two key challenges facing adolescents and young people in Mpika are early marriages and teenage pregnancies, both of which victims resort to as an alternative social support mechanism.
A gradual withdrawal of support from UNICEF to Mpika radio station was recommended in order not to abruptly end the Test Your Life radio series, which has become part of the editorial menu of the community.
The station draws its panellists from partner organisations promoting the welfare of adolescents and young people in the districts while it enjoys support from governmental bodies such as ministries of Health and Agriculture. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture offered the premises to the radio station where it currently operates from.
From Mpika, the monitoring team proceeded to Kasama, the provincial, capital of Northern Province, to visit the famous Mano community radio station.
From humble beginnings under a tree in 2000, Radio Mano in Kasama has become a famous broadcaster covering nearly all the districts in Northern Province, transmitting on a radius of 250 kilometres.
Irish Aid bought the radio station its first modern broadcasting equipment in 2005. Late President Michael Sata is credited to have been the first individual who gave Radio Mano a major boost by buying the station a 2,000 watts capacity transmitter which, if allowed by IBA, could cover a radius of nearly 600km.
The equipment that was donated by the former President was however, gutted recently and was undergoing repairs at the time of the visit.
The radio station is a regular scene of political skirmishes of warring parties competing for space to advance their agendas to the electorate.
An audience assessment survey conducted under the auspices of the United Nations in 2013 showed that Radio Mano had a mixed-age listenership of 672,000. One of the major factors accounting for its popularity is that 80 percent of its programmes are in Bemba, the local lingua franca spoken in its catchment area. The remaining 20 percent of its broadcasts is reserved for English programmes.
At the time of the visit, the radio station had run five episodes of the Test Your Life radio programmes, which are aired every Monday from 13:30 to 14:00 hours. Station manager Crispin Ntalasha said the 30 minutes allocated to the programme was too short and recommended an extension to at least 45 minutes.
The next stop was at KFM Radio in Mansa, Luapula Province. Seventy percent of the programme content on KFM is adolescent-centred, which made it an ideal choice to run Test Your Life radio series, equally tailored for adolescents and young people.
According to KFM Radio commercial director Vincent Kapungwe, Test Your Life has succeeded to break barriers on subjects like sex and condoms which were culturally held as taboo.
There are plans to increase the participation of young people in the radio broadcasts such as visiting schools to share some of the issues discussed on Test Your Life as well as creating radio listenership groups in youth-friendly centres.
Society for Family Health (SFH) DAPP and Child Fund have formed a consortium called Sexual and Reproductive Health for All (SARAI) whose objectives are to revamp youth-friendly centres in Luapula and establish radio listenership groups to provide feedback to radio programmes on sexuality and reproductive health.
A peer educator and co-presenter of Test Your Life programmes on KFM, Jeremiah Mulanda, observed that it was necessary to target Anti- AIDS clubs in schools to share the issues discussed on radio since not all school-going children could listen to radio.
Meanwhile, Luapula Province AIDS coordinating advisor Nathan Kabwe called for urgent sexual and reproductive health interventions for adolescent and young Congolese refugees who account for 70 percent of the more than 15,000 asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
Mr Kabwe feared that the language barrier between asylum seekers in Kenani transit refugee camp and the host community could heighten the risks of HIV infection among the sexually active age groups.
He suggested setting up a youth- friendly centre in the transit refugee camp and intensified dissemination of health information before the refugees are transferred to a permanent camp in Mantapala.
JUSTINE MWIINGA, Lusaka