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Delight at arrival of healthcare vending machines

The unveiling of a personal wellness vending machine – which dispenses healthcare products including condoms, sanitary pads, pregnancy tests and HIV self-tests, free of charge – at an event in Mthatha was met with delight.

The National Department of Health has joined forces with NPOs to roll out self-care vending machines designed for adolescents and young women and men. The first machine, donated to the department by TB HIV Care with funding provided by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was unveiled at TB HIV Care’s Ultra City Hub of Hope in OR Tambo district.

“The experience was nothing short of exhilarating,” said Michelle Carey, TB HIV Care’s Head of Demand Creation, adding that the response of the young people in attendance was a “testament to the importance of the work we do”.

“The energy in the air was electric as young boys and girls from nearby schools arrived, dancing and singing with unbridled energy and excitement. Many spontaneously launched into passionate traditional songs that I thought could be heard across the universe.”

A “standout moment” for Carey was “the breathtaking sight of the ‘indoni’ girls dancing and singing as they approached from afar, their voices carrying songs of strength, resilience and a profound understanding of the need for protection, not just from STIs, unplanned pregnancy and HIV, but also from the men in their lives: principals, fathers, uncles, neighbours and community leaders.”

Carey added that it was incredibly uplifting to witness these girls’ understanding of the benefits of making empowered choices for their futures. She said: “They radiated hope as they embraced the opportunity to be seen and celebrated. Despite the daily challenges they face, their joy and determination were evident. This event was a powerful reminder of the resilience and potential of our youth.”

Deputy Minister of Health, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, joined the indoni girls in the celebrations

Another notable moment was when South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Health, rejecting the opportunity to revel in the glory, called on representatives from CDC and TB HIV Care to “stand up and show yourselves”. In this moment of focusing on the work and the people doing it, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo allowed everyone to forget for a moment that it is an election year.

The vending machines are not a standalone project, but form part of a digital health initiative to expand access to sexual and reproductive health products to those who need them. People who need to access products in the machines can do so through accessing pin codes via free services. Increased availability of condoms, lubricants and contraception is part of continuing efforts to decrease South Africa’s twin epidemics of teen pregnancy and HIV infection.

TB HIV Care Programme Director Jenny Mcloughlin said the organisation was supporting the procurement and roll-out of another seven machines in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal over the next few months. Partner NPOs will support the Department of Health in other parts of the country.

“Young women don’t want to fall pregnant. They don’t want to deal with an unintended pregnancy or be vulnerable to STIs and HIV. But they might be too embarrassed, or even too scared, to visit a clinic or facility,”. said Mcloughlin, describing vending machines as “a quick, convenient and discreet alternative”.

The vending machine dispenses condoms, sanitary pads, pregnancy tests, HIV tests and other products

She added: “Non-judgmental, youth-friendly services are at the heart of everything we do.”

Luzuko Tosh, TB HIV Care’s HIV Prevention Regional Manager, noted that ease and convenience are critically important when it comes to increasing access to sexual and reproductive health products and HIV prevention services.

“Digital health technology is exciting. We can use phones, apps and vending machines to distribute non-pharmaceutical, personal wellness products … This will reduce unnecessary clinic visits, queues and the burden on primary health facilities. It also reduces out-of-pocket costs, like taxi fare, to get to clinics,” he said.

 Tosh added: “Importantly, it allows people to take charge of their health and expands access to under-served and vulnerable groups, like key populations and the LGBTQI+ community.”

The vending machines are funded by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention through TB HIV Care to address barriers to healthcare and to expand access to menstrual and sexual health products for young people. LoveLife’s call centre number for information, counselling and support is 083 323 1023.

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