The raging phenomenon of wild parties organised by teenagers, where sex orgies and alcohol binges are commonplace, is stocking fears of a surge in new HIV infections in Bulawayo.
The National Aids Council (NAC) said it is worried that teenagers in the country’s second city were becoming more exposed to HIV because of the sex orgies that are synonymous with the gatherings known as vuzu parties.
Sinatra Nyathi, the NAC provincial coordinator in Bulawayo, said the city had seen a spike in the number of teenage pregnancies amid suspicion this was linked to the vuzu parties that have become a common feature during school holidays.
“The main challenge we are facing right now is that the highest number of new infections being recording is among teenagers, who are within the [age] range of those who attend vuzu parties,” she said.
The popularity of vuzu parties has left NAC and other authorities scrambling for answers.
In response, NAC, which coordinates HIV and Aids programmes in the country, is now working on awareness programmes in conjunction with the Bulawayo City Council (BCC), teachers at local schools, parents and vulnerable children to put an end to the vuzu parties.
One of the issues driving teens to vuzu parties is peer pressure and Nyathi revealed that they were working on measures to counter this.
“We are extensively working on anti-vuzu campaigns with teachers, adolescents, parents and the city council,” she said.
NAC is also worried that some of the teenagers that engage in unprotected sex at these parties could already be HIV infected, but are not mature enough to handle their health status.
“Those who are infected end up defaulting on their medication and end up infecting their counterparts when they indulge in unprotected sex at the Vuzus parties.
“Our main goal is to make sure they all appreciate the importance of taking their medication religiously,” Nyathi said.
A nurse educator at Mpilo Hospital, the largest referral hospital in the city, who only identified herself as Sister Moyo, said they were recording an increase in the number of young girls seeking contraceptives.
Moyo said this was an indication that more young people were engaging in sexual activities at an early age.
She said health workers took advantage of the hospital visits by the young girls to educate them on the dangers of unprotected sex.
“Most of them are more worried about falling pregnant than about contracting sexually transmitted diseases, which is the biggest challenge we have,” she said. “We do educate them whenever they come for contraceptives, but it is not enough.”
Moyo believes increasing the number of programmes to teach teenagers about reproductive health will help minimise the risk of HIV among young people in Bulawayo.
The vuzu parties are mainly hosted at venues in the central business district (CBD), which include popular pubs.
Bulawayo city councillor, Mlandu Ncube, whose ward covers the CBD, said the parties were giving parents in the area sleepless nights.
He said a development committee had been set up in his ward to tackle social ills such as the increasing number of vuzu parties.
“When people started talking about vuzu parties, we thought it was just about teenagers getting together and drinking,” Ncube said. “However, when we started digging deeper, we got the shock of our lives.
“The thought of a girl as young as 15 having sexual intercourse with more than three people at one go is depressing for any parent.”
Ncube said councillors had resolved to work closely with the council’s health department to carry out awareness programmes targeting schools, as one way of tackling moral decay.
The councillor said they will also work with the police, as some adults were focal in coordinating vuzu parties by providing venues and alcohol.
“We are in the process of identifying properties that host vuzu parties in our ward,” Ncube added.
“So far there are a few houses that have been identified. However, we are still gathering evidence before we approach the police so that we can save our children.”
Bulawayo police spokesperson, Inspector Abednico Ncube said the community was helping law enforcement agencies to deal with drug and alcohol abuse that was common during the vuzu parties.
He said the youth ended up indulging in unprotected sex because they would be too drunk.
“The community is deeply affected by the conduct of young people. It is mostly concerned about the diseases they may contract,” Insp Ncube said.
“We fear that these young people, if not contained, they may end up falling in deep pits of deadly sexual diseases.”
The police, he said, were taking advantage of education programmes being carried out by health providers in the city to raise awareness on the dangers of drug abuse.
“Several arrests have been made so far in a bid to [reduce] the prevalence of vuzu [parties],” Insp Ncube added.
BCC’s director of health services, Edwin Sibanda said although the local authority had come up with a number of initiatives to tackle the scourge of vuzu parties, their effectiveness were limited by manpower shortages,
“All clinics in the city have youth friendly corners, which give comprehensive sexual education that is age appropriate,” he said.
“We admit that there have been manpower challenges, leading to these corners being manned by ‘old people’.
“Another emerging issue is that these corners perpetuate stigma much like the opportunistic infections clinics.”
Sibanda said vuzu parties were an emerging problem that required new counterstrategies
“We do understand these vuzu parties are potential sources of sexually transmitted diseases, hence, we have devised communication strategies,” he said.
“We make tailor-made programmes to teach young people sexual health.
“It is at these programmes where services such as voluntary male circumcision and HIV testing are offered to adolescents.”
With a population of 653 337 people, Bulawayo is already an HIV hotspot in Zimbabwe alongside Harare, Ruwa and Chitungwiza, recent research revealed.
According to a survey carried out by Avert, an international evidence-based HIV and sexual health information organisation, Bulawayo and Harare alone are home to around 113 000 people living with HIV.
At least 33 000 of those people are not on treatment.
Some of the factors driving new HIV cases were people having sex at a younger age.
Zimbabwe has one of the worst HIV epidemics in the world with an estimated 13 percent of the population infected with the virus.
At least 41 000 new infections are recorded annually.