Urgent Need to Prioritise Young People in Efforts to Tackle HIV Epidemic

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Momina now 22 was diagnosed as living with HIV three years ago but refuses to be defined by her status

Author: International HIV/AIDS Alliance

Somalilandsun – Ahead of World AIDS Day on 1 December, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance is highlighting the urgent need to prioritise and involve young people in efforts to tackle the global HIV epidemic.

There are over 1.8 billion young people in the world today, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries; around five million are living with HIV. Young people aged between 15 and 24 account for 40% of new HIV infections with some 2400 new infections among this age group every day. Young women are particularly vulnerable to HIV with infection rates twice as high as in young men.

Lack of knowledge, gender inequalities, cultural norms, stigma and discrimination, limited youth-friendly interventions and service providers’ attitudes are just some of the factors that prevent young people from accessing sexual and reproductive health services.

According to Helen Parry, a senior advisor with the Alliance: “Many young people do not have the information or means to protect themselves from HIV. Denying them knowledge and access to services is jeopardising their future. If we fail to reach young people who are most affected by HIV, including those actually living with the virus and those who are particularly vulnerable and marginalized, we will never get new infections under control.

“The current generation of young people is the first never to have known a world without AIDS,” she said. “We’re thirty years into the epidemic now and young people living with HIV continue to face discrimination and exclusion on a daily basis. Protecting, respecting and promoting their human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights, is critical.”

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, together with a consortium of international and national non governmental organisations, is currently spearheading an ambitious three year country programme – Link Up – which aims to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of more than a million young people aged 24 and under who are living with and affected by HIV in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Burundi, Myanmar and Uganda. .

Link Up has a particular focus on young sex workers and children who are exploited for sex, young men who have sex with men and transgender people, all of whom experience extreme difficulties accessing services due to the high levels of stigma, discrimination and, in some cases, the fear of arrest.

In Ethiopia, where more than half of the current population is under the age of 24, the government has made the fight against HIV a national priority. According to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, it is one of the few countries on course to achieve universal antiretroviral treatment by 2015. The number of HIV-related deaths dropped by half between 2005 and 2011 and the number of people tested increased from less than half a million to 11.9 million in the same period.

Despite the considerable construction of new health centres and the successful mobilisation of thousands of new health workers, particularly at a community level, there is still very low coverage of prevention of mother to child transmission services in the country. Only about 24% of pregnant women are actually tested and a much smaller proportion receive antiretroviral therapy during labour.

When Momina, 22, from Adama in central Ethiopia found out that she was living with HIV three years ago, she was already seven months pregnant with her second son Yerosa and unable to get treatment to prevent onward transmission of the virus. Having left home at 16 to avoid being married off to an older husband, she was then rejected by her family for fear that she would infect her siblings. With a limited support network, she subsequently gave Yerosa up for adoption after he was diagnosed HIV positive four months after birth.

Life for Momina and her family could have turned out so very differently if she had known how to protect herself against HIV, if she had had proper antenatal care when she was pregnant with Yerosa, if she had not felt compelled to run away from home for fear of early marriage. Offering a full range of contraceptive methods, comprehensive information and HIV prevention tools empowers young people to make healthy decisions and access dual protection, enabling them to prevent HIV, unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

To mark World AIDS Day, the Alliance has released a short film – That Time – to highlight the impact of lack of access to HIV information and services on young people like Momina. Find out more at www.link-up.org

Notes:

• The six international agencies involved in Link Up: Better sexual and reproductive health and rights for young people affected by HIV are ATHENA Network, The Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS (GYCA), the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Marie Stopes International, Population Council and STOP AIDS NOW!

• The national organisations involved in Link Up are ABS (Burundi), Alliance Myanmar (Myanmar), Community Health Alliance (Uganda), HASAB (Bangladesh) and OSSA (Ethiopia) and their implementing partners.

• The three year programme runs from January 2013 to January 2016 and is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the government of the Netherlands (BUZA) through its sexual and reproductive health and rights fund.

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