New Vending Machines Increase Distribution of Sexual and Menstrual Health Products

In a pilot project with the Department of Health and partner NPOs, TB HIV Care is rolling out vending machines as part of a new digital health initiative to expand access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) products – and increase uptake of condoms, lubricants and contraception to decrease teen pregnancy and HIV infection.

The first vending machine, launched on Wednesday, 10 April, is situated at the Hub of Hope in Mthatha, but as TB HIV Care’s Programme Director Jenny Mcloughlin explains, TB HIV Care will support the procurement and roll-out of another seven machines in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal over the next few months, with partner NPOs supporting the NDOH in other districts and provinces across the country.

“The project has taken into account the needs of adolescent girls and young women, and adolescent boys and young men,” says Mcloughlin. “First and foremost, young women don’t want to fall pregnant. They don’t want to deal with an unintended pregnancy or be vulnerable to STIs and HIV. But they might be too embarrassed, or even too scared to visit a clinic or facility. Vending machines are a great option for young people who are looking for a quick, convenient and discreet alternative.”

Importantly, the vending machines are not a stand-alone initiative. They form part of an integrated approach to improve access to SRH and HIV prevention services.

“Non-judgemental, youth-friendly services are at the heart of everything we do,” says Mcloughlin. “Clients can call loveLife’s call centre – one of our partners – to access information, counselling and support. But they can also send a ‘please call me’ to the number if they’re looking for condoms, contraceptive pills, sanitary pads or even pregnancy tests or HIV tests,” explains Mcloughlin.  “They then receive a code which they can punch into the vending machine to select their items.”

For Luzuko Tosh, TB HIV Care’s HIV Prevention Regional Manager, ease and convenience is critically important when it comes to increasing access to SRH and HIV prevention services:

“Digital health technology is exciting. We can use phones, apps and vending machines to distribute non-pharmaceutical, personal wellness products and, a little further down the line, medication like PrEP and ARVs. This will reduce unnecessary clinic visits, queues, and the burden on primary health facilities. It also reduces out-of-pocket costs, like taxi fare, to get to clinics,” says Tosh. “Importantly, it allows people to take charge of their health and expands access to underserved and vulnerable groups, like key populations and the LGBTQI+ community.”

Mcloughlin agrees. “Self-care is so important. We know there are many reasons that people, including adolescent girls and young women, struggle to access healthcare facilities. Through Hubs of Hope, and now wellness vending machines, we’re hoping to encourage young people to look after their health and give them the products and services they really need.”

The seven vending machines are funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through TB HIV Care to address barriers to healthcare – and expand access to menstrual and sexual health products for young people.