HIV prevalence among adolescent girls and young women a global concern
> Lahja Nashuuta
WINDHOEK- THE Ministry of Health and Social Services, in partnership with the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, PEPFAR and USAID, last week hosted a meeting on HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health and rights for adolescent girls and young women.
More than a 100 delegates from 12 eastern and southern Africa met in Windhoek from 1-3 February to discuss approaches and strategies on how best to reach adolescent girls and young women with HIV prevention in the context of sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The gathering came hot on the heels of a disturbing report that indicated that in 2014, nearly half of all adolescents living with HIV globally were living in six countries, five of which are in Africa.
In eastern and southern Africa, 74 percent of new HIV infections among adolescents are in girls aged between 15 and 19, while AIDS-related illnesses are the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age.
And despite considerable progress in HIV care and treatment, innovative HIV prevention interventions and approaches to reach adolescent girls and young women, are urgently needed.
UNAIDS, PEPFAR and the Global Fund, in an effort to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, in December last year launched the Start Free Stay Free AIDS Free Framework – a vehicle to accelerate the end of the AIDS epidemic among children, adolescents and young women.
The new framework seeks to stop the cycle of new infections among adolescent girls and young women. Namibia has shown the political leadership vital to achieving these goals through endorsing this initiative and serving as the Stay Free ambassador.
The number of new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women in Sub-Saharan Africa remains worrisome. PEPFAR has noted that 390,000 adolescent girls and young women are being infected with HIV each year, of which 75 percent are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Namibia is among countries in the region that are struggling to contain the HIV pandemic among its young women. The country has one the highest HIV prevalence in the world with 18.2 percent of young people age 15-19 living with HIV.
Anne-Marie Nitschke, a director in the Directorate of Special Programme in the Ministry of Health and Social Services, revealed that by end of last year 17,000 youths between 10 and 19 years were living with HIV in Namibia. And statistics by the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture indicate that about 2,500 teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 fall pregnant each year and which exposes them to HIV.
UNICEF says despite high levels of HIV awareness, large numbers of young men and women continue to have risky sexual practices such as unprotected sex, multiple and concurrent partners and they have a low perception of their own risk.
Namibia’s health minister, Dr Bernard Haufiku, during the last week’s seminar said there have been less focus on new HIV infections, especially among teenagers of reproduction age.
The minister attributed this failure to ignorance from the parents and communities that their children are engaging in sex.
“The important thing is not to deny that sex happens, but to teach them about all the consequences. It is ignorance, not education that puts young people at risk,” he said.
Haufiku noted that learning about “our sexuality and maintaining sexual health are lifelong processes that begin at birth and continue throughout life and children should be educated about it a tender age”.
For some households, kids are not allowed to watch sexual contents on television, nor to talk openly about sexual relationships.
The minister cautioned that: “If parents do not talk to their children about sex, it becomes a challenge for them to find out the right information and will explore their sexuality which often leads to them becoming victims of teenage pregnancy.
“Whether we like to admit it or not, the reality is that young girls are becoming mothers and young boys taste fatherhood at a tender age nowadays. As the saying goes, ‘babies are having babies’ ”.
He stressed that reaching out to the affected adolescent girls and young women as well as young men remains a challenge in Namibia and across the region.
But it is important for countries to address the health needs of adolescent girls and women collectively in order to break the propagation cycle of the virus, he said.
Also addressing the delegates during the seminar, United States Ambassador to Namibia, Thomas Daughton, said there is a need to find ways to reach adolescent girls and young women with evidence-based prevention programmes.
“We need to ensure that young girls remain HIV-negative through a holistic approach that includes helping them stay in school, educating them on the risks of HIV and how it is transmitted, and ultimately, empowering young women to make safe choices.
“For those who become infected with HIV, we need to have programmes that can help identify them earlier on by providing optimised testing and treatment services that are accessible, safe and acceptable to them,” the diplomat said.
Daughton said adolescents and young women have to be at the centre of any HIV prevention programme.
“Addressing them is an essential component for achieving HIV epidemic control and sustainably maintaining the gains that we have worked so hard to achieve. This includes integrating services in the context of girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights.
“We have strong evidence and supportive data, and we need to ensure that we are able to reach adolescent girls and young women. The time to act is now,” he said.
He said communities and governments must understand the factors that increase young people’s vulnerability to HIV. “They must support young people with public information campaigns, both in and out of schools, to raise awareness and combat stigma. They must provide legal protection for women, people living with HIV/AIDS and children orphaned by AIDS,” he said.