The Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) in collaboration with international scientists from the Saint Louis University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and New York University Langone Health, have given out a total sum of N2.5 million to a set of five youths teams, to embark on HIV self-testing campaign in their various communities.
The award presentation to the teams took place at the HIV Self-Testing Innovation Bootcamp, organised on the platform of For Youth By Youth (FYBY) Initiative, held at the Digital Bridge Institute, Oshodi, on Thursday, 30 May 2019.
Organisers of the For Youth By Youth Initiative had staged a four-week competition for seven teams of youths to plan a project on how to mobilise youths to participate in HIV self-testing, and at the end of the four-week contest, which was 30 May, the teams were asked to make presentations of their projects, and three winners emerged among the seven teams.
At the end of their presentations, Team Smart, the Lagos based youths emerged the first, with a prize of N1 million, while the second prize of N750,000 went to Team B-Star, and the Enugu based youths, Team Genra, took the third position with a cash prize of N500,000.
As a means of encouraging two other teams that performed very well with their projects but couldn’t make it to the third position, Dr Chizoba Ezepue, consultant neurologist at Saint Louis University gave cash prizes of N125, 000 each to the fourth and fifth placed teams.
Aside the financial support, all the finalists also received entrepreneurship start-up package, including HIV self-ting kits, condoms and products for STDs screening.
Speaking with the Principal Investigator for the project, Dr Juliet Iwelunmor, she said the ultimate goal of the initiative is that they want young Nigerians to be the leaders and partners in the promotions of HIV self-testing in Nigeria.
“We are now finally at the end of our Innovation Bootcamp, where we have been for the past four weeks. The winners of our Designathon were selected to come for four weeks to get training on entrepreneurship, research and ethics, and they have been in engagement with key stakeholders, on how they could promote HIV self-testing among young people in Nigeria.
“The whole project led by FYBY started on World AIDS Day, when we had the first challenge, by asking young people to give us their ideas on how to will promote HIV self-testing in Nigeria. We had over 903 entries on what they want to do.
“That then took us to March 2019 when we had a three-day Designathon challenge, where 13 teams came and for three days, they expanded their ideas on how they intend to spread the message if they are selected winners. We had three top winners of which we selected a couple of other winners and finally at our Innovation Bootcamp, where for a month, they have been gaining skills on how they will promote HIV self-testing, if they are lucking to be selected. Right now they are pitching to an esteemed panel of judges who will listen to them”, she stated.
On why HIV self-testing? She explained that self-testing removes stigma around HIV testing, in fact, takes testing away from the clinic to the confine of your home. It is confidential, takes the test and in 20 minutes, you are sure of your results. She noted that they don’t want to make the mistake of going out there just to talk to people to raise awareness HIV self-testing, but they discovered that using youths to reach the youths, will make a great impact.
For Dr Oliver Ezechi, who is another principal investigator, with NIMR, their focus on the youths for the project is strategic, because they have realised that youths believe more in their peers than adults, so they brought them together, to use their own swags to mobilize their peers to get involved.
“The three teams who emerged winners will go into the community to actualise what they have presented, and among the three, we will pick the best two who have achieved what their goals are. At that time, NIMR and their partners will absolved them. Scaling up their projects to the community, we are going to refine these ideas if we find them applicable to the community”, he said.
Mesoma Igbokwe, 21, a member of the Genra Team, narrated the wealth of experience she and her team members have been able to gather for the period of the training. “The experience has been wonderful, we never imagined we could make it this far. We started out as an experiment, let’s try this, since the 1 December, World’s AIDS Day, then we came to the Designathon in March, we came second, and we made it to the Innovation Bootcamp.
“The Innovation Bootcamp has taught us so much to work as a team, how to engage stakeholders, and we have learnt a lot of things that our peers will ordinarily not do, things that we didn’t learn in the university, because we are medical students and computer scientists. Being here has widened our horizons than what we could have been. We can now say we are a little proficient in some aspect of research, human engagement. Overall the experience has been amazing.
“Initially when we started out, it was just an avenue to do something new, but after coming into the whole thing, we saw that there was a huge need to get youths get tested. We consider ourselves ambassadors already, to spread the word out there, to correct people’s misconception about HIV, because I tell you there are a lot of them. The whole campaign is not just about fishing out positive people, is to encourage people to test, and when you are negative, we encourage you to being negative. Reduce the number of risks they take.
The Head Project, Lagos State AIDS Control Agency, Dr Oladipupo Fisher, said the agency is glad to be part of the project, which is in tandem with the global target, that aims at the eradication of HIV new infection by 2030.
Applauding the initiative’s goal of reaching youths thorough youths, he said self-testing will assist in curtailing the spread of HIV/AIDS as a whole, while those who test positive can be easily linked to caregivers, and they can access their medications free of charge.