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Young People And HIV / AIDS

What is the fourth largest cause of deaths in the world? HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS has become a global crisis since the mid-1980s. Over 22 million people have died of AIDS. 42 million people are now living with HIV/AIDS. Out of this figure, 12 million are young people between the ages of 15-24. In 2002, the estimated number of people newly infected with HIV was 5 million and death due to HIV was 3.1 million.

Let us look at the figures in our country. Where are we? In 1986, there were only 3 HIV/AIDS reported cases, one AIDS case and one death. By the end of December 2002 there were 51, 256 reported cases of which 19,926 cases were youth aged 13-39. The number of AIDS cases was 7,218 with 5,673 deaths. The Ministry of Health also reported that in 2002 alone, there were 6,978 new cases of HIV/AIDS. This means that on the average there were 19 reported cases a day. Isn’t this trend alarming?

Out of the 51,256 reported cases of HIV/AIDS, almost 77 percent are drug users. Spread of the virus through heterosexual (sex between man and woman) ranks second at 12 percent, homosexual at 0.9 percent and infected mother to child at 0.6 percent. Part of the reason for the high percent of HIV/AIDS cases among drugs addicts is that compulsory HIV testing is done in prisons and drug rehabilitation centers.

What about cases that are not reported? Maxine Olson, the Resident Representative, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), mentioned in one of the local newspapers, The Sun dated 28 February 2003, that the estimated number of HIV/AIDS cases could be as high as 200,000.

How do young people become infected? Like adults, young people can get the HIV through these ways – sharing of needles with a HIV infected person, having sexual intercourse with a HIV infected person, from their HIV infected mothers during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding and in rare cases, through blood or blood substance and organs tainted with HIV.

What can young people do to prevent themselves from becoming infected with HIV/AIDS? Here are some suggestions:-
· Know the facts about HIV/AIDS. How it is spread and what can be done to prevent the spread of the virus. Get correct information from reliable sources.
· Be aware of what are risky behaviours. Know the potential dangers and consequences of such behaviours. Avoid them. They include smoking, drinking alcohol, sex and taking drugs.
· Stay firm and remain pressure free. Peer opinion is important to you and your friends may influence you in many ways. Do not blindly follow them. You do not have to prove anything to them. Be in control. You have the right to decide for yourself what is best for you. If you are in doubt, share your thoughts with someone whom you can trust and depend on.
· Maintain open and regular communications with responsible adults such as your parents, a relative or your favourite teacher. You will be surprised on how understanding and helpful they can be!
· Maintain good moral values.
· Maintain a healthy lifestyle and feel good about yourself. Take part in sport activities, useful hobbies, and feel great and happy in carrying out your daily responsibilities.

Let me share with you on what I read from “Population Reports”, Series L, Number 12 (2001) about “Youth and HIV/AIDS”. In that publication, Namonje Nakanyika, a 22-year- old journalist for the Zambian youth publication “Trendsetters” interviewed a young person known as Mark (not his real name), who is HIV-positive.

Mark said, “ I became sexually active at a very early age. To me it was all about proving to my friends that I was a man by sleeping with different girls. I had set my life in the fast lane. I did not use condoms. Neither did I ask my partners how many partners they had before me”.

“Then I started to get sick. I went back to the hospital and had the test. The results came out positive. The first thing I did was cry.”

A few months after Mark had found out that he was HIV-positive, he started to go to a counseling center. Some people from MTV wanted to do a documentary on young people living with HIV and Mark agreed. It was shown on Zambian national television.

“But to come out in the open and say I had HIV was shocking to many people. I experienced a lot of stigma. People who knew me did not want to come close to me or shake my hand. Sometimes people went as far as to call me a murderer. That hurt a lot”.

However, Mark did not regret in going public. “I want to let other young people know how I got infected. Anyone can get HIV, and young people are most at risk. I go to the communities, schools, and colleges to talk to young people on ways they can protect themselves from being infected. I tell them that if they are not careful, they could end up like me - another statistic”.

Mark’s story clearly indicated that experimenting risky behaviours is the “Passport” to contracting HIV. He had many sexual partners, did not use condoms and lived a dangerous life... Learn from Mark. Take charge and be careful... maintain a healthy lifestyle and be HIV-free.

1. HIV/AIDS Update till December 2002, Ministry of Health.
2. Population Reports, Series L, Number 12 (2001) – Youth and HIV/AIDS

Piaro Kaur
Head, Programme Services, FFPAM

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