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For Men Only: New Cape Metro Men’s Health Centre empowers boys and men with one-stop shop for wellness

By Siyabonga Kamnqa 23 February 2021

Some of the services offered to men at the new centre include screening for chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, HIV and TB, and prostate cancer screening, voluntary male circumcision and vasectomies. (Photo: Supplied by Western Cape Department of Health / Spotlight)

The Western Cape health department recently opened a new health centre for men only. It aims to encourage boys and men to seek help when needed and to promote healthy lives.

Data the world over suggest men are less likely than women to seek medical help and use health services. In South Africa, about a third of new HIV infections in 2019 were in men, while more than half of HIV-related deaths were among men.

It is an issue health experts have long grappled with: How do we get more men to seek healthcare services? One possible solution is being tried in the Western Cape – a clinic just for men. The Metro Men’s Health Centre at the Karl Bremer Hospital in Cape Town was officially opened in November last year as part of “Movember”, which aims to highlight the importance of being tested for prostate cancer.

It is high time men put their health first, says Dr Saadiq Kariem, chief of operations in the Western Cape’s health department. 

“This thing of men being reluctant to get screened or seek medical attention must come to an end. As men, we need to prioritise our health. Men must utilise the centre, not only for screening of chronic diseases such as HIV and TB, but also for things like prostate cancer,” says Kariem.

For men, by men

“The facility, the first of its kind in the Cape metro, aims to empower boys and men to lead healthy lives and will be a one-stop shop for wellness and chronic conditions screenings, HIV-prevention interventions, treating sexually transmitted diseases and offering medical male circumcision,” says Dr Abdul Sungay, who heads the centre.

Sungay says most men prefer a one-stop health service and men often prefer disclosing their problems to a male medical professional, with the idea that “men understand men”. 

“This creates a safe, comfortable space for the client to share their health problems. In 2016/17, the management team of [the] northern and Tygerberg substructure of Western Cape Health saw an opportunity to support men’s health services, when Karl Bremer Hospital made unutilised infrastructure available for clinical [use],” says Sungay.

What was previously a coldchain storeroom has now been transformed into a men’s wellness centre, offering rooms for counselling, screening, surgery and aftercare.

Getting more men to seek healthcare services is a longstanding challenge for the health sector. The Metro Men’s Health Centre, a first for the Western Cape, recently opened at Karl Bremer Hospital. (Photo: Supplied by Western Cape Department of Health / Spotlight)

Boosting VMMC

Voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) is one service offered at the new centre. VMMC reduces the risk of contracting HIV and some experts believe that the country’s VMMC programme has contributed to the reduction in new HIV infections in recent years. (See previous reporting here.)

The VMMC roll-out in the Western Cape has lagged behind other provinces. It was launched at 14 facilities and the Goodwood Correctional Centre in the northern and Tygerberg substructure in June 2011. The aim was to prevent and reduce new HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by 50% between 2011 and 2015.

“Medical male circumcision services were limited, as it was not available at our healthcare facilities daily. This was identified as a limiting factor in why men do not access these services in our area, which ultimately led to poor uptake of men’s health services overall. 

“When we reviewed the programme in 2015, access to men’s health services was still a challenge. It was clear that even though men want to take responsibility for their health, these services were not readily available to them,” says Sungay.

Sungay says they currently have seven staff at the facility and they see on average 10 to 15 patients daily. He adds that they can do at least 10 VMMC procedures a day.

According to latest estimates from the Thembisa model – the leading mathematical model of HIV in South Africa – about 40.9% of men aged 15 to 49 have been circumcised in the Western Cape. Of the country’s nine provinces, only the Northern Cape at 37% has a worse record. Six of the nine provinces have circumcised more than half of men and boys in this age group.

Other services

Besides VMMC, other services offered at the centre include:

  • Wellness screening and counselling to identify and reduce any risk of chronic diseases (hypertension, diabetes, etc);
  • Prostate cancer screening to promote early diagnosis and treatment;
  • Screening of HIV/TB and STIs to promote early diagnosis and treatment;
  • Promotion of health education and awareness around men’s health matters;
  • Condom distribution;
  • Vasectomies.

Vasectomies, Sungay says, are not yet up and running but will hopefully be provided soon.

While the new centre caters for men more broadly, Cape Town has for over a decade had the Health4Men clinic that caters specifically for men who have sex with other men. In 2018, Spotlight reported on funding cuts that were threatening the operations of Health4Men. 

Responding to a question on whether the services offered at the new centre include services for gay and bisexual men, Sungay says they are a stigma-free clinic open to all men who need healthcare services. 

“We do not discriminate [against] individuals [based on] gender, sexuality, race or culture. We try to offer services tailored to our clients’ needs, which include members of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Word is getting around

“Since the opening of this site just over two months ago, we have seen an increasing number of individuals coming for screening of HIV and prostate check-ups. We try our best to counsel our clients regarding the benefits of circumcision and have had several clients come back for it. A lot of our clients in the past month were referred by a friend, so word is getting around,” he says.

Due to the pandemic, Sungay says people are wary of visiting healthcare facilities. “However, we space out our appointments so that we can adhere to all the Covid-19 protocols and precautions. 

“We encourage all men in the metro to make an appointment, especially if they have any concerns about themselves, their body or their health. The appointment systems help us ensure there is minimal waiting time and pre-empt the type of service that is needed,” Sungay says.

Dr Abdul Sungay, head of the Metro Men’s Health Centre. (Photo: Supplied)

Health centre welcomed

Coordinator of the men’s sector at the South African National Aids Council (Sanac), Mbulelo Dyasi, says chronic illnesses such as TB and HIV are prevalent in many households, often because men refuse to be screened or tested. 

Commending the men’s health centre as an initiative that is long overdue, Dyasi says it will go a long way in encouraging men to take their health seriously and changing their behaviour and attitude towards taking care of their health.

“We fully support this kind of initiative and, in fact, since 2008, when we started the Brothers For Life campaign, we’ve been advocating for this kind of service. Men in our communities have long been making a plea for clinics that are focusing on them specifically,” he says.

“Remember, firstly, that it is quite embarrassing for men to admit they have sexual problems. They wouldn’t talk about their sexual problems, even to their own friends. And, for instance, there are very sensitive issues such as erectile dysfunction and penis sizes that most men face that need a health official who is going to handle them with the sensitivity and understanding they deserve,” says Dyasi.

“Traditionally, our fathers used to discourage us from going to the clinic. A clinic is often viewed as a place [for] women. And as such most men pretend to be strong and that they can take it even if it’s painful. So they end up using traditional medicine or even healing themselves instead of going to the clinics. 

“Long queues are also discouraging men. They see it as a waste of time because they want to go and hustle for their families. Now facilities like this one will play a vital role,” he says.

Dyasi says they always encourage an open dialogue in families that can help address the “superhero syndrome”. 

One of the wards at the Metro Men’s Health Centre at Karl Bremer Hospital. (Photo: Supplied by Western Cape Department of Health / Spotlight)

“It starts in our own families, where the wives and children can start to say ‘dad/honey, you don’t look okay, let us go see a doctor’. The importance of going for regular check-ups in families is also something that we emphasise all the time. 

“It must be a family culture that, after a certain period, we all go for check-ups as the entire family,” says Dyasi.

Garron Gsell, founder and chief executive of the Men’s Foundation of South Africa, says with data showing that men on average have a shorter life expectancy than women, and dying more frequently than women from preventable causes, there is a need for similar centres countrywide. 

“This men’s centre can be used as a good example that can assist in rolling out more centres,” says Gsell. DM/MC

This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.

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