HIV infections plummet among young adults: UN report

Ahead of the International AIDS Conference in Vienna next week, the UN announced that young people are leading the charge against HIV infection.

By , Correspondent

HIV infections among young adults have plummeted in 15 of the world's worst-affected countries, according to a new UN report that credits the improvements to positive changes in sexual behavior.

From 2000 to 2005, the proportion of people ages 15 to 24 with the HIV virus in Kenya dropped 60 percent, according to the findings of a global study by the United Nations’ anti-AIDS arm, UNAIDS. In Ethiopia, there was a 47 percent reduction in HIV prevalence among pregnant young women and a 29 percent drop in rural areas among all young adults.

“These excellent results in this report have happened because young people are adopting safer behaviors. They have shown that they can be agents of change,” Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS’ executive director, said in the report (pdf).

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HIV prevalence among young people has declined by more than 25 percent in 15 of the 21 countries most affected by AIDS. The study also found that in 13 countries, young people are waiting longer before they become sexually active, having fewer partners, and using condoms more often.

'Message getting through'

Botswana, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, and Zimbabwe have all achieved a goal set in 2001 to reduce HIV prevalence in 15-to-24-year-olds by 25 percent by 2010, the report found. Burundi, Lesotho, Rwanda, Swaziland, the Bahamas, and Haiti are all "likely to achieve" it by the end of the year.

"We are definitely seeing that the message about safer sex, about the dangers of HIV, is getting through," says Nick Reding, a British actor who set up Sponsored Arts For Education (SAFE), a charity using drama to teach young Kenyans about the virus.

"There is an ever-increasing attendance at our events, people are lining up to be tested, we're working hard to crack the prejudice and stigma over having tests. There's plenty more work to do, but we are clearly moving in the right direction."

'Still great efforts needed'

But other groups cast a skeptical eye on the optimistic report.

“We can’t say straight off whether these findings match our experience, because the report’s methodologies may be different from ours,” says a Nairobi-based spokeswoman for the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which works in clinics across Kenya and East Africa with patients living with HIV and AIDS.

“It is true that there have been some significant positive changes in recent years, but at the same time, there’s a discourse that the war’s been won against AIDS. That is not the case, and there are still great efforts needed."

Indeed, 5 million young people still live with HIV worldwide, according to the UNAIDS study, which was launched ahead of the International AIDS Conference in Vienna from July 18-23. Roughly 40 percent of the 2.7 million new infections in 2008 affected young people.

"Any statistics showing a reduction in HIV prevalence are welcome, but let's not forget that millions are still living with the virus, and that there are daily new infections," says the Doctors Without Borders spokeswoman. "The future of the fight against AIDS needs to continue to incorporate prevention, but not lose sight of treating those who have the virus, and can pass it on."

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