HIV infection rise among adolescents

HARARE - While the country has made enormous strides in reducing the HIV prevalence, gains made thus far could be reduced by a spike in infections among adolescents, the Health and Child Care ministry warned recently.

Last year alone nearly 14 000 girls and young women, between the ages of 15 to 24, in Zimbabwe were infected with HIV raising fears that the next generation is under threat.

This comes as the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has also warned in a World Aids Day report, of a global rise of HIV infections among adolescents from 250 000 in 2015 to nearly 400 000 a year by 2030 if progress is stalled in reaching out to adolescents.

Health minister David Parirenyatwa said Zimbabwe’s theme was focused on closing the taps on new infections especially among the youth and young women who had become vulnerable of getting infected with virus.

“Although the global theme is: ‘Hands up for HIV prevention’, we localised it to ‘closing tap of new infections’ as Zimbabwe noted that new infections are rising particularly among the adolescents and women.

“This theme therefore seeks to solidify the thrust of the previous themes, which are aligned to HIV prevention,” Parirenyatwa said in a state of the nation address on HIV and Aids recently.

According to Parirenyatwa, although new HIV infections are generally decreasing, the country is recording a significant rise in HIV infection among people aged between 10 and 19 years.

“This year’s commemoration comes at a pivotal time when we have committed to ending Aids by 2030 in line with fast track targets and the sustainable development goals, which call for ending the epidemics of Aids, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases among others.”

Zimbabwe is experiencing a dilemma on whether to  provide condoms to the adolescent group or not.

Debate has been raging on, on whether condoms should be provided at schools or not with advocates saying it would reduce infections while those against it saying it would encourage children to engage in sexual activities at a younger age.

Young women and girls are currently being provided with a core package of services that includes HIV testing, pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis, prevention and gender-based violence support, family planning, social protection, educational subsidies, and economic assistance for parents and caregivers of highly vulnerable girls under an initiative supported by the American embassy dubbed “Dreams” (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Aids-Free, Mentored, and Safe).

The Dreams initiative is bankrolled to the tune of $38 million and in empowering adolescent girls and young women. It is also strengthening family and community support structures which are critical in fighting HIV.

Voluntary medical male circumcision is also in the pipeline for males aged 15 to 29 as Zimbabwe strives to curb new infections.

Moreover, the issue of child marriages continues to be a headache, with sex education also proving to be a controversial issue at family level, resulting in dearth of safe sex knowledge.

According to the Unicef report there were nearly two million adolescents aged 10 to 19 living with HIV in 2015 globally.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the region most affected by HIV, girls accounted for three out of every four new infections among adolescents aged 15-19.

In a press release on World Aids Day (December 1) Unicef executives said girls are more at risk of contracting HIV than boys.

“The world has made tremendous progress in the global effort to end Aids, but the fight is far from over — especially for children and adolescents,” Unicef executive director Anthony Lake said in the statement.

“Every two minutes, another adolescent — most likely a girl — will be infected with HIV. If we want to end Aids, we need to recapture the urgency this issue deserves and redouble our efforts to reach every child and every adolescent.”

There are an estimated 1, 4 million people living with HIV in Zimbabwe, with over 100 000  of them projected to be adolescents and children.

National statistics also state that only 45 percent of young women and 24 percent of young men have been ever tested for HIV.

The report further proposed several strategies for accelerating progress in preventing HIV among adolescents and treating those who are already infected including “Investing in innovation including in locally grown solutions as well as strengthening data collection”.

But funding for the Aids response has declined since 2014, Unicef said.

In his World Aids Day message, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the world  must also look ahead with resolve and commitment to reach its goal of ending the Aids by 2030.

“There has been real progress on many fronts, including a reduction by half in the number of children infected through mother-to-child transmission since 2010, fewer Aids-related deaths each year, longer lives for people with HIV and greater access to live-saving medicines,” he said.

“But gains remain fragile, with young women vulnerable in countries with high HIV prevalence, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and new infections on the rise among people who inject drugs as well gay men and other men who have sex with men.”

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