Harnessing sports to raise awareness on HIV & STIs

October 14, 2019

Athletes from Tahiti pose for a photo with T3 safe sex packages at the 2019 Pacific Games. Photo credit: Samoa Ministry of Health/2019

Sport is increasingly being used as an effective tool to respond to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in Samoa.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), through the Western Pacific Multi-Country Integrated HIV/TB Programme, has been partnering with the Ministry of Health, civil society and community groups to raise awareness on sexual and reproductive health, stigma and discrimination, as well as to promote HIV/STI prevention at recent sporting events.

At the 2019 Pacific Games, hosted this year by Samoa from 7-20 July, a total of 10,000 condoms and lubricants were distributed to athletes, spectators and the public as part of coordinated health promotion activities.

The Pacific Games were an opportunity to utilize the ongoing “T3: Talk It, Test It, Treat It” campaign run by the Ministry of Health. This slogan refers to the need to: 1) Talk about sexual health issues as a community and promote awareness; 2) Get tested for free at all National Health Service facilities to improve screening rates and surveillance; and 3) Get treated to reduce transmission and ensure a healthy life for all.

“The idea was to deliver discreet, attractively designed safe sex packages to the public during the Pacific Games,” said Robert Carney, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Samoa Ministry of Health. “At mass gathering events such as these regional athletics competitions, transmission of STIs is known to increase. Here in Samoa, people are particularly vulnerable because of the low rates of condom use and high rates of Chlamydia.”

“Sports have a way of bringing communities together – and this includes people of all ages, backgrounds and identities,” said Sara Faletoese, Programme Analyst, UNDP Samoa. “We commend MOH and partners for this excellent collaborative initiative, integrating it with other sexual and reproductive health interventions and for extending their T3 campaign to include the Pacific Games 2019.”  

The safe sex packs were a joint effort, with UNDP providing the 10,000 condoms and lubricants, while package design was done by Alpha Café and Chemist with funding from the World Health Organization (WHO), and overall coordination by the Ministry of Health.

Woven baskets were used to stock the packages to reflect the local culture and spirit of the games, as well as aligning with the “Greening the Games” theme of the event. To further strengthen the reach of the message, T3 messaging was displayed prominently on billboards in Apia.

The packages were distributed to the public by staff of the Ministry of Health and partners at multiple locations, including public restrooms and changing rooms at all athletic venues, Ministry of Health information booths stationed at all events, walk-in Polyclinics set up at all venues, and at the Athlete Village dining hall and restrooms. These sites were selected to provide maximum access to both locals and the visiting athlete delegations.

“The public reception of these packages and their accessibility was predominantly positive,” said A’aone Tanumafili Taveuveu, Principal National HIV/AIDS Capacity Support, Health Sector Monitoring and Resourcing Division, Samoa Ministry of Health. “There is a need for further condom promotion in our communities, as well as financial support to safeguard the sustainability of such campaigns and maintain the momentum that we’ve achieved towards changing behaviour.”

The surveillance data gathered during the campaign is also expected to provide insight on the impact of the Pacific Games on local STI rates.

In addition to the Pacific Games, a Fa’afafine Sports Day was organized by the Samoa Fa’afafine Assocation (SFA) at Leififi College on 28 September, with support from UNDP.

The event was a way to raise public awareness and encourage good sexual health practices among SFA’s membership. It featured traditional Samoan games, such as tosogamaea (tug of war) and tuugataga (sack racing). In addition, the event was an opportunity to reach out to the fa’afafine community and attract new members to the Association.

"Sports, including fun games, are another sociable and less tense environment for marginalized groups such as fa’afafine and fa’atama to meet and greet,” said Alex Su'a, President, SFA. “This Fa’afafine Sports Day captures not just sexual health but the general well-being of our community, from socializing to exercising while sharing a laugh with everyone. Isn't laughter the best medicine?"

Given the overwhelmingly positive feedback received thus far, it is expected that the Fa’afafine Sports Day will become an annual event.