Features

HIV in South Africa: ‘Ultimately it will be young people who end the epidemic’

An HIV education and prevention programme set up by UK nurse Marcus McGilvray has reached 45,000 young South Africans. Jacqui Thornton reports from the programme’s base in KwaZulu-Natal.
Charlize Theron

An HIV outreach programme set up by UK nurse Marcus McGilvray has reached 45,000 young South Africans. Jacqui Thornton reports from the programmes base in KwaZulu-Natal

When Marcus McGilvray left school aged 18, he wanted to see the world. He started with India, Nepal and the Cayman Islands and spent 18 months globetrotting.

But he had a competing ambition. From the age of 14, when AIDS began hitting the headlines, he wanted to be an HIV nurse. I like listening and talking to people, and my whole purpose of going into nursing was to specialise in HIV, he says.

On returning from his travels, Mr McGilvray trained as a nurse at Queen Marys Hospital in Sidcup, south east London, and completed a degree in health management, specialising in health promotion and

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An HIV outreach programme set up by UK nurse Marcus McGilvray has reached 45,000 young South Africans. Jacqui Thornton reports from the programme’s base in KwaZulu-Natal


WhizzKids United supporter Charlize Theron with founder Marcus McGilvray. Picture: Leigh Page

When Marcus McGilvray left school aged 18, he wanted to see the world. He started with India, Nepal and the Cayman Islands and spent 18 months globetrotting.

But he had a competing ambition. From the age of 14, when AIDS began hitting the headlines, he wanted to be an HIV nurse. ‘I like listening and talking to people, and my whole purpose of going into nursing was to specialise in HIV,’ he says.

On returning from his travels, Mr McGilvray trained as a nurse at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, south east London, and completed a degree in health management, specialising in health promotion and HIV prevention. He then worked at a sexual health clinic in central London. 

Reaching thousands 

His passion for travel remained and he decided to combine it with his career, helping to set up a HIV prevention clinic in Ghana in 2002 with his fellow HIV nurse and then-girlfriend Nicola Willis.

The pair planned a two-year sabbatical but never returned; 14 years on, Mr McGilvray is the founder and CEO of WhizzKids United in South Africa, a charity that runs a football-themed HIV outreach programme to raise awareness and reduce stigma among children.

Mr McGilvray, now 47, says: ‘I never intended to set up a charity. When we left, my colleagues all laughed and said “you’re wasting your time, what can two people do?”. I said: "you watch".'


One of the charity's funders is an outreach foundation set up by actor Charlize theron
Picture: Leigh Page

His work with Ms Willis was the start of a journey that has led to thousands of vulnerable and hard-to-reach adolescents receiving HIV testing and treatment.

Soccer drills, life skills

Mr McGilvray still spends four months a year at the clinic in Ghana, but for the rest of the year he is based in South Africa, his home since 2003. Initially, he worked for the government, training doctors and nurses on the use of antiretroviral (ART) drugs.

He then based himself in Edendale, a poor neighbourhood outside Durban in the country’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The area has the highest HIV prevalence in South Africa, with an estimated 25% of the population aged 15-49 infected.

This is where he set up WhizzKids United. A keen football fan and Liverpool supporter, he helped devise soccer drills that are used to promote life skills, including HIV prevention. To date, 45,000 young people across South Africa have been through the programme. 

Mr McGilvray followed up the outreach programme by founding a sexual health and youth centre, called the WhizzKids United Health Academy. The centre offers medical, psychological and practical support to local youngsters who have been diagnosed with HIV.

A vital role 

For those who test negative, WhizzKids aims to help them stay negative by teaching them about effective prevention. For those who are positive, it enables them to gain access to life-saving treatment and support in a country where this is not freely available.

Now WhizzKids sees more than 6,000 10 to 20-year-olds a year. Of these, 1,200 have HIV and all are on antiretroviral therapy.

The charity receives US $750,000 (£610,000) a year from public and private sources and employs 25 people including four nurses, a doctor, eight counsellors, and four football coaches with life skills training. 

‘Nurses have a huge and varied role to play,’ says Mr McGilvray. ‘People want to be listened to whatever their illness, but this is particularly true of HIV. Doctors prescribe and monitor for adverse reactions to HIV treatment. But most of all people want the human touch and that's where we nurses play a vital role.’

Programme funders

Just over half the funding comes from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health. Other donors include the United Nations Association of South Africa, which gives around US $1,229 (£1,000) a year. Liverpool FC donates kit and Oxfam has also donated in the past.

Another funder is the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP), the charitable foundation set up by the Oscar-winning actress, which gives WhizzKids United $90,000 (£73,200) a year. When Nursing Standard interviewed Mr McGilvray in July, Ms Theron was visiting WhizzKids United.

‘Marcus is someone who dreams big and he’s the one actually here doing most of this work,’ Ms Theron told Nursing Standard. ‘He’s dedicated his life to this.

‘Of the seven organisations the CTAOP supports, this is the one that has raised the bar. It is run really well by its community leaders, it’s incredibly adolescent-friendly and when you look at the staff you realise why it’s so effective.

‘They are here because Marcus is creating that environment. He’s ultimately responsible – we wish we could clone him.’

In 2010, WhizzKids United was awarded a prestigious Football for Hope status by football’s international governing body FIFA, which paid for a new building and an artificial grass football pitch. 

Mr McGilvray wants to double the number of young people who access the project, as well as bring in an additional US $1.6 million (£1.3 million) in funding.


WhizzKids United supporter Charlize Theron with two of the children
Picture: Leigh Page
 

The project receives referrals from a local hospital HIV children’s service and Mr McGilvray is currently working with the South African government to replicate the model at 11 different hospitals.

Helping children live

‘When we arrived in South Africa, one of the first things Nicola and I did was to write a training manual on how home-based carers could provide palliative care to children,’ he says.

‘Now we teach children and youths how to manage their antiretroviral therapy. Instead of preparing people to die, we’re helping them live.’

Mr McGilvray has come a long way since he set off for Africa in 2002. On World AIDS day on 1 December, he will be at a youth-run WhizzKids United event, to discuss HIV prevention and how young people can break the barriers of HIV stigma in their communities.

‘If anyone’s going to end the youth HIV epidemic, it will be the young people themselves,’ he says.  ‘We can only guide and support them.’ 

So you want to do something life-changing? Advice from Marcus McGilvray

1. Don’t listen to people who try to put you off achieving what you want to achieve. Some people have a tendency to knock those who do something they believe in. It’s because they didn’t have the confidence to pursue their beliefs and dreams.

2. Be prepared for hard work, and lots of it. It can be lonely.

3. Be self-confident, but also be sure to listen, most of all to the people you’re trying to help.

4. If you’re working with young people, remember what it was like to be a teenager. It saves a lot of disappointment when they don’t always do what you’d hoped!

5. Patience and humour go a long way (and balls of steel, whatever gender you are). 

 

For more information or to donate visit www.whizzkidsunited.org


Jacqui Thornton is a freelance health writer

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