HIV & Young People

HIV and the younger generation

Many regard HIV/AIDS as an “infection for grown-ups” but an increasing number of young people are now falling victim to the virus.

It’s a scary thought that, according to UNICEF six people aged between 15 and 24 become infected every minute of every day. And it’s young girls who are the most vulnerable - almost two thirds of new infections among those under 25 are female.

Of course it tends to be the 15–24 age group which is the most experimental. Young people inevitably dabble in drugs and sex and think themselves invincible. HIV will never happen to them – or so they believe. That’s something that only happens to druggies, gays and people who sleep around.

Peer pressure and the need to be seen as knowledgeable and cool often leads teenagers into situations they can’t handle.

Take drugs for example. The occasional joint may lead to injecting drugs – particularly in areas where youngsters feel there’s little else to do. Injecting dramatically increases the risk of infection from dirty needles. Around 10% of all new infections each year among young people are thanks to dirty syringes.

Studies show that 90% of unsafe sex among young people happens when their judgement is clouded by drugs or alcohol. And most HIV infections among youngsters are caused by sex.

In many developing countries, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, two girls to every boy are infected. The main factors are:

  • sexual violence often brought about by civil war
  • “survival” sex to combat poverty
  • the common practice of marriages between older men and young girls
  • a lack of education about the virus

It’s a sad fact that the youngsters most vulnerable to HIV are those hardest to target. Sex workers, street children and drug users are among those least likely to come forward for help or advice.

HIV and Young People: Support and Education

Certainly organizations such as UNICEF are doing their best to reduce the stigma surrounding the virus.

School education programs focusing on safe sex and how HIV can be transmitted are springing up in many developing countries. In Africa a UNICEF funded theatre group goes into refugee camps to perform plays on safe sex.

Outreach groups try to access the most vulnerable youngster, sending workers out on the streets in Thailand and South America where street kids abound and sex exploitation is rife.

But what’s the way forward in developed countries where despite costly education programs, high profile health promotion campaigns and constant messages on safe sex, there’s still a rise in HIV cases among the young?

The answer seems to be – education, education and more education. What most Western countries are trying to do is reduce the stigma of HIV/AIDS and emphasize the fact that young people are at risk.

Education is really the only way to chip away at the stigma and fear of the virus as well as the ignorance about how it spreads.

Some people, particularly church groups, believe that educating the young about safe sex will only encourage them to have sex at an early age. But well informed and accurate information on the virus could help reduce the number of early cases according to bodies such as UNICEF and the United Nations.

The UN’s goal for 2010 is that at least 95% of young people will have access to appropriate information and education to reduce their risk of HIV.

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