Can ‘edutainment’ protect young people from HIV? LSHTM joins forces with MTV

New campaigns in South Africa and Cote D’Ivoire will focus on HIV prevention and self-testing
Caption: HIV test Credit: MTV Staying Alive Foundation

Today the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), the MTV Staying Alive Foundation (MTV SAF) and Unitaid have announced a three-year partnership to introduce storylines on HIV innovation, including HIV self-testing and preventive drugs (PrEP) into the award-winning drama series MTV Shuga.

The announcement, made at the 22nd International AIDS Conference, will span Southern Africa and Western francophone Africa, delivering three new TV series of MTV Shuga, which fuses hard-hitting storylines with sexual health messages to influence viewers’ attitudes and behaviour. Alongside this will run a multimedia campaign promoting sexual health among young people aged 15 to 24 years old.

The campaign is centered on HIV prevention and testing, preventive drugs known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), HIV self-testing, and HIV treatment. Through realistic plot lines, it aims to show young people how to protect themselves from the virus, and to seek out testing and treatment.

AIDS remains the leading cause of death among 10 to 24 year-olds in Africa, bolstering the case for innovations and investments that prioritise this age group. Through this campaign, Unitaid and MTV SAF will highlight the real-life concerns of young people. LSHTM will be evaluating the success of the campaign in influencing the attitudes and behaviour of viewers.

Isolde Birdthistle, Principle Investigator at LSHTM, said: “Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing its largest ever generation of adolescents, and many remain at high risk of HIV while incidence rates decline in other age groups. Exciting new HIV prevention tools must be made known and available to adolescents and young adults, to help drive down new infections.

“Our research will involve looking at whether the campaign increases awareness and demand among young people for innovative, effective tools for HIV prevention, especially HIV self-testing and PrEP.  We will also measure whether MTV Shuga can boost the number of young people who know their own HIV status, which really is vital.

“Knowing your HIV status is the gateway into prevention and treatment services, and it is typically lower among young people than other groups.”

MTV Shuga is a programme designed to help millions of young viewers in French and English speaking Africa protect themselves from HIV. Running alongside the series will be print, digital and social media activity, as well as peer education programmes that challenge stigma and obstacles to young people’s sexual health.

Professor Simon Cousens, Principle Investigator at LSHTM, said: “Our analysis will be critical in understanding how multimedia campaigns can work to both improve adolescent health and deliver HIV prevention messages. 

“Previous research has shown that education alone is not enough to tackle HIV. Delivering a campaign which combines both education and entertainment to give positive messages on prevention and self-testing could have the potential to make a real difference in protecting young people from HIV infection.”

The new campaigns will be deployed in South Africa and Côte d'Ivoire between 2018 and 2020. Preliminary work for both countries begins this year, with the first television series due for broadcast in the first half of 2019 in South Africa, followed by two seasons in Côte d'Ivoire.

Georgia Arnold, executive director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation and executive producer of MTV Shuga, said: “The need to focus on the sexual health of young people is more important today than ever before. With the advent of developments like HIVST and PrEP, we have a unique opportunity to effect real change in young people’s lives. Continuing a multi-platform approach for MTV Shuga helps us keep reaching youth in every aspect of their lives and encourage an ongoing dialogue in the global fight against HIV.” 

The campaign running in francophone Côte d’Ivoire represents a commitment to the region, following years of focus on English-speaking countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “We are delighted to be working with the MTV Staying Alive Foundation by leading studies in South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire to evaluate MTV Shuga’s impact on increasing the demand and uptake of HIV self-testing and PrEP.

“With its broad reach and popular appeal across Africa, MTV Shuga has the potential to stimulate awareness of and demand for prevention and treatment services, particularly for young women and men, among whom HIV risk remains persistently high.”

Lelio Marmora, executive director of Unitaid, commented: “Millions of people in Africa watch MTV Shuga. Our partnership with MTV Staying Alive gives us a terrific opportunity to reach young people who don’t have reliable health information and empower them to take charge of their health - including testing themselves for HIV.”