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[LUSAKA] At the Munali Secondary School in Lusaka, an unusual youth club is under way. All eyes are on Humphrey Chileshe, a facilitator who uses sign language to lead an open and frank discussion on topics that are usually taboo here in Zambia, such as promiscuity, abuse, HIV and contraception.
For the young people in the group, most of whom are deaf and are not reached by other HIV prevention campaigns, the session provides a welcome opportunity to gain knowledge and share experiences.
This 'Safe Love' club is part of a wider campaign, run by a USAID-funded programme called Communications Support for Health (CSH), which centres on a popular TV drama called Love Games.
As Zambians around the country tune in to episode one of the second series tonight, the hope is that they will get more than pure diversion from a storyline packed with sex and scandal.
Love Games is an 'edutainment' show that uses a juicy plot and high production values as a conduit for health promotion and, in particular, behavioural change around sexual relationships in young people for whom HIV is a daily reality.
Launched in January, the show is scripted around the key drivers of HIV in Zambia: concurrent sexual partners, low condom use and mother-to-child transmission. The second series will also touch on the topical issue of voluntary male circumcision.
The plot focuses on five couples living in the Zambian capital Lusaka, where HIV prevalence is over 20 per cent, compared with the national average of 14.3 per cent.
Florence Mulenga, capacity building director at CSH, says the messages in the programme have been carefully selected following scientific research into drivers of behaviour change.
Love Games actor Pastor Kangwa Chileshe says the show addresses personal risk perception in the younger population. "People know about HIV now, but there is a disconnect between that and their own behaviours," he says.
To this end, social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube are also being used to provide a platform for young people to discuss the issues covered in each episode. Safe Love clubs like the one in Munali also run on a weekly basis across the country.
Does the edutainment approach work?
“We see a direct correlation between Love Games episodes and call numbers increasing.”
So far, the show is proving popular despite regular blackouts in poorer neighbourhoods.
Broadcaster ZNBC does not have official viewing figures, but Rosanna Price-Nyendwa of CHAMP Zambia, which runs a free confidential hotline to deal with sexual health questions and which is advertised alongside the show, says call numbers spike dramatically around the time that Love Games is on air.
"We see a direct correlation between Love Games episodes and call numbers increasing, and we see a direct correlation to the questions our counsellors are asked," she says. "It is having an impact."
Yet despite these successes, funding for CSH ends in 2014 and, like many externally funded programmes in the region, questions still remain over who will take over the expensive campaign when the money dries up.
See below for an episode of Love Games:
Catherine de Lange is in Zambia covering global health issues as an International Reporting Project new media fellow.