Health

Ending the AIDS Epidemic in Adolescents

The International AIDS conference kicked off this week in Melbourne, Australia bringing together policymakers, those working in the field of HIV, persons living with the disease, and others committed to ending the endemic. Recognizing that we are at a critical time to ensure that HIV remains on top of the global agenda, this year’s theme – Stepping Up the Pace – is pushing adolescents to forefront.

According to UNICEF, by the end of 2012 approximately 2.1 million adolescents were living with HIV globally. About two thirds of new infections were among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years old. Today’s adolescents have never experienced and AIDS-free world and face complicated risks and challenges that were unknown to previous generations. Compounded by the vulnerabilities that arise during adolescence, young men and women – and particularly girls – are facing high infection rates, poor access to treatments, and inadequate education. Despite these challenges, the global community is committing to addressing the specific needs of adolescents in order to cute infections in half by 2020.

Recognizing AIDS2014 as a platform to engage young people in a meaningful way, UNICEF led a powerful panel discussion on Sunday focusing on ending the AIDS epidemic in adolescents. The session brought together young people and leaders in government, research, and civil society to discuss the challenges experienced by adolescents, impact interventions for HIV, and opportunities to engage youth in future global health agendas.

Craig McClure, Chief of HIV/AIDS program division at UNICEF, kicked off the session stating that an AIDS-free generation is not possible without addressing the needs of adolescents. “This HIV area of response has been neglected for far too long,” McClure stated. “The challenges ahead are formidable but not insurmountable.”

According to UNICEF and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are four main areas of concern that serve as motivators to increase programming and research efforts addressing HIV prevention, treatment, and care in adolescents:

  1. Adolescents living with HIV are more likely to die from AIDS than any other age group.
  2. Despite the global perspective that the AIDS epidemic has had a significant reduction between 2001 and 2012, progress has been uneven with new HIV infections growing among young people in high-burden countries.
  3. The increasing number of AIDS deaths in adolescents indicates that investments made to respond to HIV are inefficient.
  4. Most national responses are not tracking the health status or outcomes of adolescents aged 10-19, creating missed opportunities for early intervention and effective planning.

Kate Gilmore, UNFPA Deputy Executive Director, spoke passionately about these areas of concern, adding the importance of considering what it’s like to be an adolescent.

“Never before have there been so many embarking on the journey from childhood to adulthood.”

As Gilmore pointed out, the global agenda must not only focus on priority areas but also the social and economic issues youth face. Adolescents who are HIV-positive are asking questions like ‘how will I find love?’ and ‘how will I receive support at home?’ In order to create a global agenda that meets the needs of youth, Gilmore stated that it is imperative that the post-2015 agenda must bring young people to the table to make decision in prevention and treatment. It is their voice that will highlight the specific needs not being met and what integrated approaches will work.

Perhaps the most inspiring speaker during Sunday’s session was Karen Dunaway Gonzalez, an eighteen year old and recent high-school graduate from Honduras, who shared her personal experiences of bullying, discrimination and stigma surrounding her diagnosis.

“I know how discrimination feels and I never want my fellow peers to feel it.”

Gonzales is now using her voice to raise awareness of the issues HIV-positive adolescents face and is calling for adolescents around the world to receive comprehensive sexual health and rights education.

The AIDS epidemic affects adolescents in every country of the world, especially in resource-limited countries. As the speakers noted, it is critical that the specific needs of young people are considered when creating the post-2015 agenda to ensure that adolescents receive their deserved prevention, treatment, care, and support. Healthy, educated, and empowered adolescents are not only the future, but the key to an AIDS-free generation.

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Featured image credit: Zoriah on Flickr

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Category: Health    Rights
Tagged with: AIDS    AIDS2014    HIV    International AIDS conference    post-2015    Post-2015 Agenda

Lauren Himiak

Lauren Himiak worked as a journalist for a decade, covering stories in public health and travel, and currently works for Women Deliver where she is interested in issues of reproductive health, SGBV, gender equality, and youth empowerment. She has volunteered in Uganda and Haiti, working with local institutions like House of Hope and Let Haiti Live to improve education, health, and resources for children. Lauren is passionate about girls' empowerment and is interested in ways to improve gender equality and equal opportunity in both the developed and developing world. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from The New School and is an active advocate for the rights of women and girls, volunteering time with the National Organization for Women (NOW), Vera House, New York Cares, and local women's health clinics.

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