HIV prevalence among adolescents and youth is higher than any other age group in South Africa. An innovative program is helping to reduce that rate by reaching teens where they live.

OCT 23 2018

In South Africa, adolescents and young adults are two of the key population groups most affected by HIV. Despite the great need, testing young people for HIV presents significant challenges. For example, it can be difficult and uncomfortable for teens to access traditional healthcare settings for HIV testing. Other issues, such as the need for anonymity when accessing sexual health services and the stigma around HIV, are also barriers to testing.

Health on wheels

To address these challenges, the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation and Abbott have partnered on a community-based mobile service called the Tutu Teen Truck. The program seeks to normalize testing for HIV, STI and tuberculosis, encourage health-seeking behavior, and promote physical well-being for youth in the Cape Town metropolitan area.

The Tutu Teen Truck provides free, accessible, efficient and youth-friendly health screenings to underserved communities, including Mfuleni, Dunoon, Philippi, Langa, Delft and Mitchells Plain. The mobile healthcare unit is fully equipped with point-of-care testing platforms, counseling rooms and dispensing rooms. It's staffed by a team of healthcare workers led by a nurse practitioner. The clinic's mobility allows its team to provide services in high-traffic areas, such as taxi ranks, township shopping and community centers, sports fields or on roadsides opposite schools.

"Youth and other key populations have been telling us for years that they find it difficult to access health services in our traditional health facilities," said Linda-Gail Bekker, chief operating officer of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. "If we are really serious about making a difference in adolescent and youth rates of TB, STI, HIV and unwanted teenage pregnancy, then we are going to have to think outside of the box. The Tutu Teen Truck, which is 'health on wheels,' is our response to this problem."

Effective today, and improving tomorrow

By reaching out directly to teens and by offering services clearly designed for them, the Tutu Teen Truck is changing the conversation around well-being and encouraging teens to take greater responsibility for their health and the health of their communities.

Results have demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. In the three years since its launch, the Tutu Teen Truck has provided HIV testing and wellness services to nearly 11,000 people. HIV prevalence has decreased to 2.3 percent, which indicates that young people are visiting the truck for HIV testing. Although progress is being made, the HIV rate is still high enough to require active prevention and treatment intervention.

The Tutu Teen Truck demonstrates the power of bringing point-of-care testing and potentially life-saving health services to young people who may otherwise not have access to them.

The innovation doesn’t stop there. New ways to reach and engage teens are on the horizon, and potential ideas include a mobile app.