UN urges greater action, investment to prevent HIV infections in adolescents

HIV positive Monica and her granddaughter sit at home on a bed in their village of Makuzeze, Zimbabwe. Photo: UNICEF/G. Pirozzi

29 November 2013 – More than 850,000 infants have been saved from HIV since 2005, but alarming trends seen among adolescents requires urgent action to help this vulnerable group, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says in a new report released today.

AIDS-related deaths amongst adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 increased by 50 per cent between 2005 and 2012, rising from 71,000 to 110,000, in stark contrast to progress made in preventing mother-to-child transmission, according to the 2013 Stocktaking Report on Children and AIDS .

UNICEF said there were some 2.1 million adolescents living with HIV in 2012, half of them in just six counThe world now has the experience and the tools to achieve an AIDS-free generation. Children should be the first to benefit from our successes in defeating HIV, and the last to suffer when we fall short.tries – South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, India and Zimbabwe. Last year, about two-thirds of new HIV infections in adolescents ages 15 to 19 were among girls.

The report, which comes ahead of Sunday’s World AIDS Day, shows that by increasing investment in high-impact interventions to about $5.5 billion by 2014, 2 million adolescents, particularly girls, could avoid becoming infected by 2020. Investments in 2010 were $3.8 billion.

“If high-impact interventions are scaled up using an integrated approach, we can halve the number of new infections among adolescents by 2020,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

“It’s a matter of reaching the most vulnerable adolescents with effective programmes – urgently,” he added in a news release.

High-impact interventions include condoms, antiretroviral treatment, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, voluntary medical male circumcision, communications for behaviour change, and targeted approaches for at-risk and marginalized populations.

This is in addition to investments in other sectors such as education, social protection and welfare, and strengthening health systems, UNICEF pointed out.

Earlier this week, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) launched new recommendations to address the specific needs of adolescents – both those living with HIV and those who are at risk of infection – many of whom do not receive the care and support they need.

Among other things, the agency recommends governments review their laws to make it easier for adolescents to obtain HIV testing without needing consent from their parents, and suggests ways that health services can improve the quality of care and social support for adolescents.

Today’s report also noted impressive gains in preventing new HIV infections among infants. Some 260,000 children were newly infected with HIV in 2012, compared to 540,000 in 2005.

“This report reminds us that an AIDS-free generation is one in which all children are born free of HIV and remain so – from birth and throughout their lives – and it means access to treatment for all children living with HIV,” said Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

“It also reminds us that women’s health and well-being should be at the centre of the AIDS response. I have no doubt that we will achieve these goals.”

Thanks to new, simplified life-long antiretroviral treatment (known as Option B+), there is a greater opportunity to effectively treat women living with HIV and to prevent the transmission of the virus to their babies during pregnancy, delivery, and through breastfeeding. This treatment involves a daily one-pill regimen.

“These days, even if a pregnant woman is living with HIV, it doesn’t mean her baby must have the same fate, and it doesn’t mean she can’t lead a healthy life,” said Mr. Lake.

Some of the most remarkable successes were in high HIV burden countries in sub-Saharan Africa. New infections among infants declined between 2009 and 2012 by 76 per cent in Ghana, 58 per cent in Namibia, 55 per cent in Zimbabwe, 52 per cent in Malawi and Botswana, and 50 per cent in Zambia and Ethiopia.

The new report also stressed the need to ensure that more children living with HIV receive antiretroviral treatment, and to apply the knowledge that already exists and pursue new innovations to turn the vision of an AIDS-free generation into reality.

“The world now has the experience and the tools to achieve an AIDS-free generation. Children should be the first to benefit from our successes in defeating HIV, and the last to suffer when we fall short,” said Mr. Lake.


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Working with vulnerable adolescents to prevent HIV/AIDS infection in South Africa. Credit: UNICEF


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