AIDS is the leading cause of death among adolescents (10-19) in Africa and the second leading cause of death among adolescents globally. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), AIDS-related deaths among adolescents have tripled since 2000 while decreasing among all other age groups, which can be largely attributed to a generation of children infected with HIV perinatally who are growing into adolescence without access to life-saving interventions.
In a report by UNAIDS, experts have warned that ages 15-24 years is a highly dangerous time for women.
The report contains detailed data on the complexities of HIV and reveals that girls’ transition to womanhood is a very dangerous time, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. “Young women are facing a triple threat. They are at high risk of HIV infection, have low rates of HIV testing, and have poor adherence to treatment. The world is failing young women and we urgently need to do more.”
One of the main points emphasised is that HIV prevention is key to ending the AIDS epidemic among young women and the cycle of HIV infection needs to be broken. Recent data from South-Africa shows that young women are acquiring HIV from adult men, while men acquire HIV much later in life after they transition into adulthood and continue the cycle of new infections. On the positive end, the report also shows that the life-extending impact of treatment is working.
While grand global initiatives are needed to raise funds and to develop new drugs, it is the local people in the field who will defeat the epidemic. As the world’s HIV community focuses its attention and enthusiasm on World AIDS Day, which is held on December 1 each year, this lesson must not be forgotten.
Locally, the National Aids Programme Secretariat in its re-launching of its national days of testing for HIV/AIDS, announced that particular focus will be placed on youths and young adults.
A representative from the National Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) centre announced that the Secretariat’s programmatic data has revealed that persons between the ages of 15 to 19 and 20 to 25 in Guyana are infected and being diagnosed on a daily basis with HIV. This, she noted, calls for urgent actions to be taken.
Amidst the call for urgent action, the VCT representative also called attention to the large number of school children who are infected with the disease and outlined the urgency of developing a new strategy to target young people in Guyana.
According to UNAIDS estimates, HIV incidence has fallen in many of the most severely affected countries because adolescents and young people are adopting safer sexual practices. In several countries, risk behaviour is on the decline, including the initiation of sex before age 15, sex with multiple partners and sex without condoms.
In countries with generalised epidemics, schools can be a critical venue for reaching adolescents with the information and skills they need to avoid infection. In fact, evidence shows that school-based sex education can be effective in changing the knowledge, attitudes and practices that lead to risk behaviour.
Preventing HIV in countries with low prevalence or where the epidemic is concentrated in specific populations is especially challenging since the spread of the virus is fuelled by high-risk, often stigmatised behaviour.
UNICEF, in a report, outlined that turning the tide against AIDS will require more concentrated focus on adolescents and young people. This will involve strengthening partnerships across sectors and fostering meaningful involvement of adolescents in all aspects of programming and advocacy.
HIV remains a global issue when it comes to prevention among adolescents. As of a few years ago, almost 40 per cent of new HIV infections among adolescents (15-19) occurred outside sub-Saharan Africa. If current trends continue, hundreds of thousands more will become HIV-positive in the coming years.
Since 2000, 30 million new infections were prevented, nearly eight million deaths averted, and 15 million people living with HIV are now receiving treatment. There is still hope, but with the implementation of stronger prevention programmes, many young people will be spared the effects of this disease.