An unlikely weapon is being deployed by Zambia in the battle against HIV – innovative protective pants for boys who have been circumcised.
Government officials are now developing the invention of 30-year-old Precious Ndhlovu in a bid to deploy it as part of an ambitious campaign to circumcise 2.5 million males by 2020.
“It is obvious that some people fear the pain that follows the surgery and the pants will prevail over those fears, especially because it lessens the pain and shortens the healing period,” says Yvonne Mtumbi Mulambwa of Zambia’s National Technology Business Centre (NTBC).
“This will encourage more males to go for circumcision – and meet government targets.”
Male circumcision is seen by some as a significant factor in the prevention of cervical cancer among women and important to personal hygiene, but is also considered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as key to preventing the spread of HIV.
An estimated 82,681 people are infected with HIV or develop AIDS in Zambia each year, and the WHO says countries with higher levels of male circumcision have a lower prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
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A Zambian government campaign is now encouraging men up to the age of 49 to be circumcised voluntarily.
The country’s Ministry of Health aims to achieve 80 per cent coverage among HIV-negative men by 2015, with current targets set at 300,000 males to be circumcised annually.
But many men and boys resist the procedure, fearing the pain and discomfort that follows the operation.
Two years ago 12-year-old Jacob Ndhlovu was circumcised in the northern Zambian town of Kitwe after his sister, Precious, encouraged him to do so.
Precious, a school leaver without professional qualifications who dreams of going to university, told Al Jazeera: “I was nursing my nephews and brothers that I took for circumcision.
“After the surgery, I could see the pain that they were going through. I then thought, what can I do to lessen this pain?
“So I thought about creating a shield for the wound and a belt that can prevent any contact between the clothes and the wound.”
After cutting a plastic water bottle in half, she smoothed the edges to make a shield for the wound and used straps made from old clothes to belt it around the waist – creating a cover for the sensitive area.
She tested her invention on Jacob, who says he went through excruciating pain after the surgery – especially when the anaesthetic had worn off.
This is the kind of innovation we have always been looking for because it has the potential to be exported on the international market. We will support this innovation all the way because it is part of our mandate.
“I spent the first day in bed because I was in pain,” the boy explained. “On the second day, I was given the circumcision pants and wore them. On the third day, I began feeling much better and I was able to walk, sleep and sit.”
Jacob says that after the fourth day, the wound had dried and he was feeling much better.
Precious kept improving her invention until settling on a belt with an inbuilt sponge material that provided a cushion for the wounded area that was then covered by a shield.
The appliance now comprises a velvety belt in various sizes, the shield to prevent friction between the wound and clothing, and internal foam to clean the wound and avoid infection.
She says the device enables the wound to heal faster, suppresses pain and allows men and boys who have been circumcised to continue with their daily routine without confining them to bed as they heal.
After her experiences with members of her own family, Precious approached the NTBC, a government agency that works to develop local innovations.
Mulambwa says the institution embraced the idea warmly, and is now working with Precious to promote its inclusion within the circumcision campaign.
“This is the kind of innovation we have always been looking for because it has the potential to be exported on the international market. We will support this innovation all the way because it is part of our mandate,” Mulambwa said.
“It is even more interesting because it is a lady that has thought of doing something to ease the pain in males that undergo circumcision.”