By: Shirley Mark Prabhu HIV/AIDS Specialist (Knowledge and Advocacy) at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office.
Ten years after Nelson Mandela called for a strong will to fight AIDS, his words still rang loud and clear in my ears as I travelled to Melbourne for the 20th International AIDS Conference. Over 15,000 participants from nearly 200 countries, representing a diversity of voices, came together under the theme “Stepping up the Pace.” And Mandela’s “Everything seems impossible until it gets done,” resonates.
Amidst the growing hope of ending AIDS, UNICEF called for stepping up the pace for adolescents who are the only group among whom the number of AIDS-related deaths are rising. Later this year, UNICEF and UNAIDS will launch a global initiative, All In, dedicated to end the HIV epidemic in adolescents.
Like in past years, we joined hundreds of people at a Candlelight Vigil to remember the 35million lives lost to HIV/AIDS. The vigil this year had the added poignancy amidst the sadness as our global HIV community took a moment of silence and reflection for the memory of the six conference delegates, our colleagues who dedicated their lives to the global fight against HIV/AIDS, who lost their lives aboard flight MH17.
Tremendous improvement in access to treatment and the reduction in the numbers of new infections made possible for this conference, for the first time, to focus on moving towards the end of AIDS and an AIDS free generation.
Craig McClure, UNICEF’s Chief of HIV said, “An AIDS free generation is not possible without addressing the needs of adolescents. The HIV response has neglected adolescents for far too long. The challenges ahead are formidable but not insurmountable.”
In 2012 alone, there were 800 new HIV infections in adolescents every day. In Asia Pacific, 17 per cent of new HIV infections are among adolescents aged 10-19 and between 2001 and 2012, there has been a three-fold increase in adolescent deaths.
At a particularly high risk of HIV infection are adolescents and young people who purchase or sell sex, boys and men who have sex with other males, and those who inject drugs. In Asia Pacific, these groups account for 95 percent of new infections among young people.
These AIDS-related deaths can be prevented because we now know how to keep people alive. If new infections are occurring and adolescents are dying, it is because they are not tested and treated early enough, and are not accessing the services that are available for prevention, treatment, care and support.
Ironically, their age prevents them from seeking and receiving treatment. “Age of consent [for testing] is a problem,” said Gautam Yadav, a young conference participant from India, “We cannot gain access to services in government hospitals.” Poverty, stigma and discrimination limit their access to treatment even more.
Bridging the data gap
Effective interventions and policies are difficult to design because of lack of information. Without the data, governments cannot measure and monitor access, coverage and quality of services for adolescents. Yet, in 2012, in East Asia and Pacific, only Papua New Guinea had comprehensive data on HIV among adolescents!
One reason for this lack of data is that HIV surveillance often excludes those under 18. Adolescents at risk of contracting HIV often remain invisible and are not easily identified for inclusion in surveys, due to stigma, cultural and legal barriers.
At the AIDS conference, our team from UNICEF East Asia-Pacific organized a workshop specifically on how to collect data on adolescents and young people at higher risk of HIV. Participants learnt how to use a method called respondent-driven sampling (RDS) that uses social networks to gather data on a particular group of population.
The method can help estimate the sizes of adolescent and young populations who are otherwise hard to reach. Jeffry Acaba, himself a young researcher from the Philippines said, “This really helps us understand the issues we face and guide our advocacy and the message we bring forward.”
I was moved by an inspiring and uplifting performance by a group of adolescents from ‘PINA Uganda’ an NGO that helps adolescents cope with the challenges of living with HIV. They dedicated one of their songs to UNICEF and to thank UNICEF and partners for their support. “Treat the children, stop the suffering, give them attention, the leaders of tomorrow,” they sang and as I listened, I felt inspired and proud to be a part of the global efforts to end AIDS.