Adolescent infections are on the rise. According to a presentation hosted by UNICEF, between 2005- 2012 adolescent HIV infections have increased 50% while infections in all other groups have decreased by 30%. In Africa, the epidemic has reached such a crisis that HIV is the leading cause of death among the adolescent age group.
During the first day of the International AIDS Society Conference here in Melbourne, a panel session, Ending the Epidemic in Adolescents, brought together key players from UNICEF, WHO, PEPFAR, and UNAIDS among others who voiced their support for increasing efforts to reverse this disturbing trend.
Most powerful among the speakers were HIV positive adolescents who shared their experiences, which included a lack of access to services, bullying, and stigma. Adolescent panel and audience members impressed and inspired through expressing well-founded frustration surrounding policies and practices that endanger adolescents including prohibitory age of consent laws for HIV counseling and testing, child marriage practices, and lack of availability of comprehensive sexual education.
In the days prior to IAS, during a youth pre-conference, HIV positive adolescents from around the world came together to create a Youth Action Plan to address the comprehensive needs of adolescents. The Youth Action Plan consists of actionable and time-bound goals to address adolescent HIV ensuring that youth are at the heart of the HIV agenda. It includes:
1. Universal and affordable access to treatment. Remove intellectual property laws that impede access to affordable lifesaving treatment. Ensure affordable drugs that help to achieve undetectable viral loads for all young people and include youth as equal partners in the design of treatment programs.
2. Reform. Create an enabling environment with supportive, not punitive laws. Prioritize policies that support young people’s health-particularly as it relates to harm reduction services. Prioritize young people’s health over the objectives of the criminal justice system and enact social protection laws.
3. Comprehensive sexuality education. Provide non-judgmental, gender-sensitive, context-specific sexual education services supplemented with access to HIV and sexual health services. Address the needs of young pregnant women and ensure service access for young key affected populations.
4. Love. Demand respect and compassion for all young people regardless of sexual preference, HIV status, and gender. Address knowledge gaps among health care providers and educators to remove all forms of stigma.
We have work to do in order to fully realize each component of the Youth Action Plan. Working in partnership with youth is absolutely critical in order to accomplish this. Their voices cannot and should not be ignored. One young man stated, “As adolescents we demand access to a better future for all”. It is clear that as public health professionals it is time for us to roll up our sleeves and put the needs of adolescents’ front and center. In order to do this, we must harness their energy, passion, and experiences to effectively establish policies and programs to bring their needs, dreams, and goals to fruition. Adolescents stand ready to help us ensure that this agenda is realized.