PhD graduand’s research highlights need for new approach to combatting HIV-related stigma

07 July 2021 | Story Aamirah Sonday, Vuyelwa Mehlomakulu. Photo Supplied. Read time 4 min.
Vuyelwa Mehlomakulu will graduate with a PhD in Psychiatry and Mental Health on 14 July.
Vuyelwa Mehlomakulu will graduate with a PhD in Psychiatry and Mental Health on 14 July.

According to research by University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD graduand Vuyelwa Mehlomakulu, there is a need for the development of new, innovative and effective interventions to reduce external HIV‑related stigma in communities.

Globally, external HIV‑related stigma is a major threat to all HIV prevention, care and treatment interventions, including the recently launched Universal Test and Treat strategy in South Africa and the 90-90-90 targets set by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS for the global response by 2020 (the 90‑90‑90 targets are put in place to track the progression from HIV testing to durable viral load suppression among people living with HIV).


“There have not been many efforts to reduce HIV‑related stigma in South Africa.”

Vuyelwa’s study, “An assessment of external HIV‑related stigma in South Africa: Implications for interventions”, is the first of its kind in South Africa, and her research is thus an important platform to reduce external HIV‑related stigma in the country as a pathway to effectively fight and contain the spread of HIV infection, as well as to ensure continuity in the care cascade.

“There have not been many efforts to reduce HIV‑related stigma in South Africa, as it continues to exist,” said Vuyelwa.

“External HIV‑related stigma still exists despite previous success in massive antiretroviral therapy rollout, HIV counselling and testing campaigns and, most recently, test‑and‑treat programmes, which were arguably thought to have a parallel effect on the decrease of HIV‑related stigma. The focus on individualistic health structural approaches that do not generally have stigma reduction as a specific aim is likely to undermine the successes achieved in the fight against HIV thus far.”

Defining stigma

In her study, external HIV‑related stigma was defined as the presence of one or more of the following attitudes and behaviours: rejection, avoidance, intolerance, stereotyping, discrimination, and physical violence towards people living or perceived as having HIV.

Her findings showed that overall external HIV‑related stigma was found to exist among 38.3% of adult South Africans in 2012, and that predictors of external HIV‑related stigma were race, sex, education level, self‑perceived risk of HIV infection and HIV knowledge.

Some races were found to be more likely to report some external HIV‑stigma than others; females were less likely to report external HIV‑stigma than males; those with primary education were more likely to report some stigma than those with secondary, matric, and post‑matric education; those who perceived themselves to be at high risk of HIV infection were less likely to display some stigma than those who believed they were at low risk; and those displaying incorrect HIV knowledge were also more likely to report some stigma than those who displayed correct HIV knowledge.

The study did not find any significant associations between HIV testing or awareness of HIV status with external HIV‑related stigma.

Holistic interventions

The exact magnitude of HIV‑related stigma trends over the years and correlates have not been explored fully at a national level, hence Vuyelwa’s study known as the Stigma Assessment Study in South Africa (SASSA) which explores the external HIV‑related stigma magnitude and its trends between 2005 and 2012, and the associated factors that influence its prevalence in South Africa.


“I am looking forward to this new chapter as I share my academic work within the relevant spaces with the aim of making a difference in the lives of my fellow South Africans.”

Vuyelwa used secondary data from three South African national population HIV surveys which were conducted in 2005, 2008 and 2012 and a nationally representative sample of a total of 16 140 individual respondents from the 2005 survey, 13 134 from the 2008 survey and 30 748 from the 2012 survey in her thesis and included these in the SASSA analysis. Given the size of the population sample used, the findings of this study can be generalised across South Africa and, potentially, other resource‑limited settings.

“There is a need to develop innovative, holistic interventions which are specifically intended for HIV stigma reduction. These should be inclusive of both social institutional elements and health structural elements to address the challenge of external HIV‑related stigma,” she said.

Making a difference

Vuyelwa will graduate on 14 July 2021 in an online ceremony.

“I am so happy that the late nights and early mornings are finally over. As a mother of two boys, my journey was not easy as I had to juggle my mommy duties with a full‑time job and still carve out time for my PhD studies. I need to thank my family for understanding when I could not spend enough time with them.

“I also need to thank my supervisors, Professor Leickness Simbayi, Professor John Joska and Professor Peter Nyasulu, for their academic support. I am looking forward to this new chapter as I share my academic work within the relevant spaces with the aim of making a difference in the lives of my fellow South Africans,” she said.

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Graduation July 2021


Graduation 2021

We understand the disappointment that our students and their families feel about the impact that the global pandemic has had on the normal operations for graduation ceremonies. Please know that the decision to host virtual graduation events was not taken lightly. We congratulate the July 2021 graduands on their academic success during exceptionally challenging times.

The July 2021 graduands have graduated during the virtual celebratory events as per the published schedule available on the graduation page on the UCT Students website, where you will find full information about graduation.

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Your names

The names of all of the July 2021 graduands can be found in the ceremony programme PDFs.

Faculty of Science 18:00, 19 July 2021
Faculty of Law 18:00, 16 July 2021
Faculty of Humanities 18:00, 15 July 2021
Faculty of Health Sciences 18:00, 14 July 2021
Faculty of Commerce 12:00, 12 July 2021

Our stories: inspirational graduates

The UCT News team has profiled a cross-section of inspirational graduands whose stories have inspired us. To all those we haven’t been able to feature, we’d like to say: each one of you is an inspiration – to your university, your families and your communities. We wish you every success in the future.