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When abstinence is not enough

GENDER FOCUS with MWAZIPEZA CHANDA
WHAT are we going to do with the almost 120,000 virgins that are already HIV positive? Zambians need to urgently wake up to the fact that preaching abstinence is no longer the best weapon against the spread of the virus that causes AIDS.
Almost 30 years after the global campaign against the deadly Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and despite the leaps and bounds made in reducing the mortality rate our future is still under threat from the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV).
It is so painful to think of all the young teenagers in our communities who will never enter into an intimate relationship without considering that it could be a death sentence.
We have gotten so used to preaching about abstinence and condomising to prevent HIV infection but what do we tell our young who are ready to explore but already living with HIV?
In the past, the rush of hormones that came with puberty were dampened by tales of losing your essential body parts from flesh eating diseases and other such horrors that came with premarital sex.
Now, instead of fairy tales our youth face a real nightmare where, despite saving yourself for marriage, there is a real chance that an act of love could lead to your death and the death of your offspring.
I recently participated in a media symposium sponsored by an international organisation that highlighted the role of medical research in turning the tide of HIV infection.  AVAC is an American non-profit organisation that uses education, policy analysis, advocacy and a network of global collaborations to accelerate the ethical development and global delivery of AIDS vaccines, male circumcision, microbicides, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and other emerging HIV prevention options as part of a comprehensive response to the pandemic.
Through this media symposium journalists from Zambia and Zimbabwe were sensitised on the research process and current clinical trials being undertaken by various medical professionals across Africa in reducing HIV transmission amongst discordant couples and high risk individuals.
AIDS activist Mannaseh Phiri who says he eats, thinks and sleeps HIV explained that the levels of ignorance surrounding HIV and AIDS amongst the general population was frightening.
Apparently less than half the population know their HIV status despite the fact that 1 in 10 adults in this country is HIV positive. The statistics are even worse for young people aged between 15 to 19 years of age with only 33 per cent having tested.
To put it in context; of the 16,000 school girls that got pregnant last year chances are only 5,280 knew their HIV status and a potential 1,600 HIV positive babies have been born.
Worse still these hypothetical babies are starting their lives with greater risk to chronic illness, developmental problems and general poverty as their mothers are ill prepared to care for them.
I do not want to depress myself further by thinking about the reality we face as a nation – we are meant to be getting to zero HIV infection but apparently our youth are not yet on board in this endeavor.
In a recently published article PANOS Institute Southern Africa executive director Lillian Kiefer highlighted the critical need to create positive household and community environments where children will overcome challenges during adolescence, as they transition into adulthood.
Kiefer points out that adolescents have very limited access to sexual reproductive health services and worse still young people born with HIV are not able to discuss the challenges they face with friends and family.
Sadly, many young people living with HIV fail in their adherence to anti-retroviral therapy as they try to avoid stigma at school by openly taking the life-saving drugs.
Another scary thought about HIV amongst young people is the fact that some children are given ARVs but told they are vitamins, simply because parents and guardians are not able to talk to these children about their HV status.
But as I said before, what do we do?
Currently there are several clinical trials being undertaken to find a vaccine against the virus and other means to halt the transmission of HIV. Many African countries including our neighbours Malawi and Zimbabwe are part of a microbicide research to provide women with medicated vaginal rings. This method is aimed at empowering young women who are more vulnerable to HIV than men of the same age group.
Of the more than 35.3 million people living with HIV, more than half are women. Women account for nearly 60 percent of adults with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, where unprotected heterosexual sex is the primary driver of the epidemic. Young women are especially vulnerable — women ages 15 to 24 are twice as likely as young men to be infected with HIV.
So regardless of the 800,000 voluntary medical male circumcisions that have been undertaken in the past five years – our girls are still at risk and the risk is real.
So I ask again, what are we going to do about our young people?
We can argue over whether it is right or wrong to provide schoolchildren with condoms or whether or not we want to experiment with possible cures but we can no longer pretend that our youth are not at risk from HIV infection and more needs to be done.
I hope parents, guardians, community leaders, health practitioners and Government can begin to think about the ‘what next in the HIV fight.

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