An estimated 2,500 youth are newly infected with HIV every day, with women and adolescent girls facing a disproportionately higher risk, according to a new joint report by the United Nations and the World Bank that calls for a “chain of prevention” to protect young people.
“Opportunity in Crisis: Preventing HIV from early adolescence to young adulthood” presents, for the first time, data on HIV infections among young people and identifies factors that increase risk of infection as well as opportunities to strengthen prevention.
According to the report, people between the ages of 15 and 24 accounted for 41 per cent of new infections among adults in 2009. Worldwide, an estimated 5 million (4.3 million to 5.9 million) young people in that age group were living with HIV in 2009.
“For many young people HIV infection is the result of neglect, exclusion, and violations that occur with the knowledge of families, communities, social and political leaders. This report urges leaders at all levels to build a chain of prevention to keep adolescents and young people informed, protected and healthy,” said Anthony Lake, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“We must protect the second decade of life, so that the journey from childhood to adulthood is not derailed by HIV – a journey that is especially fraught for girls and young women,” he added.
The report attributes the increased risk faced by young women and adolescent girls to biological vulnerability, social inequality and exclusion. Globally young women make up more than 60 per cent of all young people living with HIV. In sub-Saharan Africa that rate jumps to 72 per cent.
The agencies note that early adolescence is a window of opportunity to intervene, before most youth become sexually active and harmful gender and social norms that increase the risk of HIV infection are established.
Family members, teachers, community leaders have a role to play in setting norms for responsible behaviour, and in advocating for the full range of services needed for young people to stay healthy, they add.
“Indeed, reducing the level of HIV incidence requires not one single intervention, but a continuum of prevention that provides information, support and services throughout the life cycle,” the agencies stated, stressing the need to empower young people with knowledge, prevention services and health care to effectively protect them from infection.
“Young people are not only tomorrow’s leaders, they are the leaders of today,” said Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
“If young people are empowered to protect themselves against HIV, they can lead us to an HIV-free generation.”