'MTV Shuga' Viewers Twice as Likely to Get Tested for HIV, World Bank Study in Nigeria Finds

Alexi Lubomirski
Lupita Nyong'o starred in the first two seasons of 'MTV Shuga'

Female viewers of the steamy African drama, which in its first two seasons starred Lupita Nyong'o, also show fewer cases of chlamydia.

Steamy drama MTV Shuga, which has touched on such issues as HIV and safe sex on Viacom's MTV Base channel available in Africa, has had a positive effect on young viewers' knowledge and behavior relating to HIV, including "substantially" increased testing, according to preliminary results of a study in Nigeria by the World Bank.

Viewers of MTV Shuga, produced jointly by MTV International and The MTV Staying Alive Foundation, were 35 percent more likely to report getting tested for HIV in the six months before being surveyed, the study found. And six months after screenings of the show and a "placebo" show at both of which sheets with information on local sexual health centers were handed out, twice as many viewers of MTV Shuga went to get tested, its results show.

A 58 percent reduction of chlamydia among female viewers, safer sex and improved knowledge about HIV transmission and testing were also found.

Seeing the show "led to improved knowledge of ways of HIV transmission and of antiretrovirals, including a decrease in myths related to HIV transmission like eating from the same pot, sharing toilets, shaking hands," the World Bank found. "It also led to improved knowledge of HIV testing: respondents in the treatment group were 43 percent more likely to know about the three months waiting period (10.1 percent in the control vs 14.5 percent in the treatment group)."

It also found that individuals in the treatment group were 35 percent less likely to think that HIV is a punishment for sleeping around (13.7 percent versus 8.9 percent) and 8 percent more likely to think an HIV-positive boy should be allowed to play soccer. "Viewers were less likely to think that it’s ok for a young girl to date an older married man or a sugar-daddy if he offered money for the family, financed her education or took her out," a summary of the study also highlighted.

The study was conducted with 5,000 people aged 18-25 in Nigeria in 2014 and 2015 and used a randomized controlled trial with data collections prior and six months after exposure to the series' third season. It was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Impact Evaluation to Development Impact (i2i), a World Bank fund.

Lupita Nyong'o starred in the first two seasons of MTV Shuga. Over its four series, the drama has crossed the continent from Kenya to Nigeria and fatured plot lines relating to HIV and safe sex, transactional sex, gender based violence and condom use.

"The experimental evaluation shows that MTV Shuga directly improved knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to HIV/AIDS," said Victor Orozco, principal investigator and economist at the World Bank’ Development Impact Evaluation unit. "The effects in several key outcomes were substantial and given the show’s global reach and low broadcast costs, MTV Shuga can potentially alter attitudes and behaviors of millions of individuals at low marginal costs."

Georgia Arnold, executive director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, said: "We’re heartened to see that the work we’re doing with MTV Shuga is helping drive positive social change. To witness TV actually decreasing sexually transmitted infections is powerful."

MTV also announced that the fifth season of MTV Shuga, starring South African actress Mohau Mokoatle, will be set and filmed in South Africa. It is due to begin pre-production in September. The latest season will be funded by South Africa’s Ministry of Basic Education, PEPFAR (The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), Marie Stopes International and Positive Action.

Explained Angie Motshekga, South African minister of basic education. “MTV Shuga comes at a time when the South African government had resolved to implement a 360-mass media behavior change campaign on HIV prevention and sexuality education program."

While the total number of AIDS-related deaths in all age groups in South Africa fell by 35 percent between 2005 and 2013, AIDS-related deaths in adolescents increased by 50 percent.

Every year, 2 million people become infected with HIV in sub-Sahara Africa, with near half of infections occurring before the age of 25, according to United Nations data. South Africa, followed by Nigeria, has the biggest number of people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, its data shows.

In the study, people aged 18 to 25 were visited at home and invited to screenings. In treatment locations, some were shown MTV Shuga in two screenings of four 20-minutes episodes. Control communities were shown a placebo movie lacking messages of risky sexual  behavior and having a similar length.

In the show's third season, Femi is an attractive and popular guy who contracted HIV as a result of past risky sexual behavior. His conversations with his best friend touch upon how he contracted HIV and dispel some of the myths related to transmission. The show also discussed the importance of a second HIV test three months after exposure to confirm a negative test result.

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