Knowing one’s HIV status via proper medical testing has failed to gain the right acceptance in this part of the world, majorly because of the myth, surrounding the virus and the embarrassment associated with the process, as it often leaves the public wondering what people around would think of them.
Thankfully for all Nigerians, this problem has met the creative minds of a group of University of Lagos undergrads – Jenifer Oriaku, Isaac Moses, Oghenekome Richard, Tosin Ikuyinminu and Hafeez Oladimeji – who jointly came up with the ‘SmartPack’ Initiative, a kit specially designed to help one test their status and get a result in 20 minutes.
Speaking with our correspondent, Daniel Ojukwu, the leader of Team Smart, Jennifer Oriaku, a 200L English student of the university, took us on a journey through how it all began.
“The SmartPack is the innovation presented by Team Smart, winners of the ‘4 Youth by Youth/Innovative Tools to Expand HIV Self-Testing (I-TEST)’ 2019 contest.
“The journey began when we saw online ads for a contest for World AIDS Day 2018. The event held on the 1st of December 2018 where quite a number of young persons came to pitch their ideas on how to promote HIV self-testing among young people. My team participated but unfortunately we didn’t emerge among the winners.
“We followed up and submitted our entry for the next stage, which was a three-day designathon; we got drilled on the basics and pitched our project idea on the last day. We came fourth out of the 13 teams that were at the designathon and got qualified to be at the one-month boot camp.
“The boot camp was intensive. We got lectures from top public health practitioners, social workers and tough drilling on communication and business pitching. On the last day, we pitched our polished project idea after submitting the paper work. We won this time, emerging at first position; we got a million naira grant to work on our idea.”
Explaining what the product really does, she said: “The SmartPack, which is the rebranded Oraquick HIV Self-test Kit, is designed to tackle the problem of stigma, inconvenience and even phobia for blood. With this, you can test and know your status anywhere and anytime by yourself by just swabbing through your gum, insert the stick into the tube and reading the result in 20 minutes; like the pregnancy strip. A single line on C is negative, while two lines on both C and T indicates a positive result. It’s as easy as that, anyone can use it by themselves.
“As part of our project, we encourage people to share results and follow up those with positive result to access care in youth-friendly health centres. And to ensure all-round safe sexual health, all participants have access to Free STI (up to four of those- syphilis, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and hepatitis) testing and treatment when they purchase the SmartPack.”
When asked what stirred their interest in the subject, she was rather poetic, and she posited: “We would think twice before going in the rain in our best suits without an umbrella. On the other hand, not many people think twice before having unprotected sex. To some, it’s okay if their female partners are able to understand their safe period; however wise this may sound, it is not at all okay. There is a ton of STIs that can be picked up, ranking high is the Human Immune-deficiency Virus (HIV). Young people, especially find it awkward, asking sexual partners about their HIV status; note that they are the most sexually adventurous group. This puts them at high risk of contracting the virus.
“This brings us to the question of how many young persons between the ages of 14 and 24 know their status. Studies report that only one out of five know their status, this ratio is frightening, especially as it threatens the nation’s vibrant age group, what will happen to us when it claims the lives of our future leaders?
“Recent medical innovations have shown that people living with the virus can live longer, healthier and normal lives. Good news even, they can get married and have kids without infecting their loved ones. However, the first step is getting to know their status and enrolling into care.
“So many excuses have been observed to be barriers to why many do not go for testing ranging from inconvenience, unfriendliness from health workers and even phobia for blood. This is where the SmartPack comes in.”
The team appears to have recorded good progress so far with hundreds of people enrolled under the new scheme and confirmed to have undergone proper self-test. Jennifer seems optimistic that their idea could become a large scale social enterprise, which caters for various situations and Team Smart could provide solutions to a wider range of problems.
She said: “We see us sustaining this project beyond this research period, as a social enterprise, wherein we are able to solve young people’s aversion to health responsibility; an enterprise capable of employing labour to tackle unemployment rate in the country.
“We hope to consider other product line extensions in future too and partnering with other social enterprises with related businesses to help reduce to the barest the scourge of the virus and achieve the 90-90-90 goal (90% diagnosed 90% receiving care and 90% repressed),” she concluded.