NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa will explode again unless parents and teachers start talking to teenagers about sex, experts warned on Tuesday.
HIV/AIDS is the main cause of death among 10 to 19-year-olds in Africa and this is the only age group globally where AIDS-related deaths are rising.
Leaders also need to make it easier for under 18s to access HIV testing and treatment, ensure all children go to school and protect girls from sexual exploitation, experts said at the launch of a campaign to end adolescent HIV/AIDS.
“Nobody wants to talk about adolescents having sex,” said Luiz Loures, deputy executive director of UNAIDS.
“(But) if we don’t break these taboos ... if we don’t change in the next five years, this epidemic is going to explode again.”
There are 2.1 million adolescents worldwide living with HIV, 80 percent of them in Africa. The majority do not know they have HIV and became infected at birth or through breastfeeding.
Although the fight against AIDS is making progress globally, current policies are failing to save the lives of teenagers, trapped in a toxic cycle of poverty, ignorance and moral conservatism.
In 2013, there were 250,000 new HIV infections among adolescents, two-thirds among girls, and 120,000 adolescents died from AIDS-related illnesses, the United Nations said.
Life can be brutal in Nairobi’s slums, with alcoholic parents who fail to provide, or who push their daughters into the sex trade to feed the rest of the family.
Girls as young as ten often have sex to survive, only to end up becoming mothers themselves — infected with the same disease that robbed them of their parents.
“My younger sisters were relying on me so I did it (had sex with men) to provide for them,” said one girl who was orphaned at the age of six and found out she was HIV positive when she became pregnant at 14.
“I don’t have any dreams for my (two year old) daughter’s future because I don’t know when I am going to die. Maybe she will go through the same experience as me,” the 16-year-old said through tears.
She did not wish to be identified because of the stigma associated with the disease.
There are over 100,000 new HIV infections in Kenya each year, 21 percent of which are among girls and women aged between 15 and 24, said Lilian Otiso, director of services for LVCT, a Kenyan charity providing HIV/AIDS and sexual health services to children trading sex for basic needs in Nairobi slums.
“Very many ... are just children with children, and that just continues the vicious cycle,” she said.
The infection rate among Kenyan females aged 15 to 24 is four times that of males.
Girls start having sex younger than boys, usually with older men, and biologically, they get infected more easily.
Kenya’s HIV prevalence rate has fallen from 13.5 percent in 1999 to 5.6 percent today. It has the fourth largest HIV positive population in the world — 1.7 million — most of whom are middle-aged.
The East African nation has made great strides in rolling out HIV testing among adults but needs to do more to address the cultural and structural drivers of HIV/AIDS among teenagers, such as dropping out of school, experts said.
“We must do everything to ensure that we keep all our children in school at least up until the age of 18,” Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said at the launch, adding that he plans to reduce the cost of secondary education in the next few years.
The head of the national AIDS control programme, Martin Sirengo, said he was looking at reducing the age at which young people can be tested without parental consent, currently 18, and at extending opening hours in health centres to make them easier for adolescents to visit.
The U.N. believes it can end the global threat of AIDS by 2030 with a push to scale up testing and treatment by 2020.
“If we can ... break those new infections, then we would have reached a point where we can start saying we are seeing the end of AIDS,” said Otiso.
Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Emma Batha