Young people form the majority of those newly infected with HIV - UN study
Stabroek News
August 18, 2002

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The global problem

A major UN study (authored by UNICEF, UNAIDS and WHO) and released in July 2002 found that not only does the majority of the world's population have no idea how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, but also that there was little awareness in the 15 to 24 age group. The problem is that this is the age when most people become sexually active; thus, the study finds, this age group contributes to more than half of all new HIV infections.

Carol Bellamy, Executive Director, UNICEF, underscores the need for action: "We have two prevailing trends here, that are, in large part, driving the HIV/AIDS crisis. One is that young people have sex, something the world must acknowledge as a pre-condition to mounting effective prevention programmes. The other is that young people actually don't have the proper knowledge to protect themselves. The tragic consequence is that they are disproportionately falling prey to HIV."

"Every day," says Pierre Piot, Executive Director, UNAIDS, "6000 young people get infected with HIV." The UN consortium has outlined a programme to combat this alarming rate of incidence. The 10 steps advocated are:

- End the silence, stigma and shame

- Provide young people with knowledge and information

- Equip young people with life skills to turn knowledge into practice

- Provide youth-friendly services

- Promote voluntary and confidential HIV testing and counselling

- Work with young people, promote their participation

- Engage young people who are living with HIV/AIDS

- Create safe and supportive environments

- Reach out to the young most at risk

- Strengthen partnerships, monitor progress

Youth and HIV/AIDS in Guyana

Statistics released in the course of this UN study show a similarly alarming trend in Guyana. It is estimated that of a total population of about 763,000, there are 160,000 males and females aged 15-24. Of this youth population, the study estimates - that on the high side - there are 4300 females and 3600 males living with HIV/AIDS.

To understand the disparity - and the higher incidence of HIV in youth - consider this. High estimates peg the percentages of female youth who are HIV+ at 5.4 per cent, and male youth who are HIV+ at 4.4 per cent. Comparatively, the figure for adult HIV incidence, as a percentage of the total adult population, is only 2.7 per cent.

Comparatively, even countries like Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, with a larger population than Guyana, have lower incidences of HIV among youth. What is more terrifying to note, is that compared to Jamaica, Guyana's absolute numbers are higher.


Opportunity in Crisis, the publication put out by UNICEF, UNAIDS and WHO, is filled with local examples from around the world, of both alarming instances of ignorance and failure, and those of courage and hope.

UNICEF, by way of the UN theme group on HIV/AIDS, has four action points on its agenda in Guyana, as elsewhere in the world:

- Prevention among young people

- Prevention of mother-to-child transmission

- Care and support for orphans and children in families affected by HIV/AIDS

- Care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS

Intervention in Guyana

USAID initiated the project that tackles youth and HIV/AIDS/STI (sexually transmitted infections) in Guyana, and funded a range of non-governmental and other organisations during the initial phase. In 2001, UNAIDS, through the UN theme group in Guyana, provided substantial funding to the project. In 2002, UNICEF is now implementing, building and expanding on the network.

What are the problems towards implementing a strategy to combat HIV incidence in youth? UNICEF identifies the problems as manifold. Information on who is affected, or infected, is - in many cases - unavailable. Not all Guyanese are covered by voluntary counselling and testing services (VCT) and peer education on HIV/AIDS. In some cases, the quality of such counselling is also questionable. The level of awareness, in general, is low. Partnerships - across sectors, across societal groups - is limited.

Youth concerns, which coincide with the HIV issue, are equally many. What is the quality of reproductive health services? Are counselling and testing accessible? Is there care and support for HIV+ youth? Is the issue of violence in teenagers being addressed? Are legal services for the youth adequate?

Of the new partnerships that UNICEF has established, in addition to the roster of NGOs already working in the area, are those with the University of Guyana, GTV, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sports. "By working with the government, and the private and public sectors," says Dr Sreelakshmi Gururaja, Assistant Representative, UNICEF Guyana, and head of the UN theme group on HIV/AIDS, "We want to be able to demonstrate that effective partnerships can be built to tackle HIV/AIDS among youth."

Fighting the cause

Aiding the UN theme group's ambitious goals for 2003, for increasing awareness and access, and reducing HIV incidence among youth, are a battery of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work in different sectors, and all across the country.

Artistes in Direct Support is a group that has been engaged in HIV/AIDS education through an innovative medium - theatre - for the last decade. This year, the Theatre Caravan will hit all 10 regions of Guyana, making up to 90 stops along the way, and thus affecting a wide variety of youth communities. Non-traditional means of communication are also deployed innovatively by the steel bands - of the Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Youth Group - in Region 6.

At the University of Guyana (UG), work is being carried out with the Faculty of Social Sciences on peace education. The message involves violence and HIV. UG currently runs a programme in Buxton, where it is working with members of the local community to discuss and understand the connections between youth, violence and HIV incidence. The Women's Studies unit at the UG is researching a group of high-risk women, chosen from among a group of female secondary school students. The students have been chosen particularly for their sexual behaviour, and will discuss lifestyle and associated risk.

Youth Challenge Guyana is an NGO with international affiliations that contains a network of about 10,000 peer educators. Working in Regions 2,3,5 and 9, the peer counsellors talk, discuss and field questions on HIV/AIDS issues among youth. A similar programme is Youth At Risk, in Region 6, where community spaces have been procided to youth, where they can access resources on HIV/AIDS. Also providing resource centres is the Guyana Responsible Parenting Association (GRPA), which engages about 90 peer helpers, and includes the Youth Advocacy Movement within its folds.

In Region 10, the Linden Care Foundation provides support for people living with HIV/AIDS, and is the only organisation of that kind in the area. The focus is on support, care and treatment.

The Centre for Economic and Social Research for Action (CESRA) has been funded to conduct baseline research on awareness programmes around HIV/AIDS, and thus provide tools for a future course of action.

While it is easier to reach people and gauge effectiveness in centres like Georgetown, the interior presents something of a challenge. HOPE foundation in Bartica, Region 7, is working with HIV/AIDS awareness among miners, and has established a youth-friendly resource centre. The foundation actively looks beyond the traditional strategies of disseminating information, and instead, hopes to provide spaces where discussion and dialogue make that possible.

Through the National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS), four NGOs GRPA, Linden Care Foundation, HOPE foundation and Hope For All Groups (in Region 2), have been tapped to provide voluntary counselling and testing services. NAPS and the Blood Bank will provide technical support on this project, and enable testing and counselling at hinterland locations. People would normally find it hard to travel out from such locations, especially if it is just for the purpose of being tested in Georgetown.

UNICEF is also looking into the possibility of bringing in what are called 'Rapid Test Kits' - which will simplify the task of testing in remote locations. Negative tests on this system are usually reliable. However, if a person tests positive, he would then be asked to undergo a confirmation test in Georgetown.

The media is regarded as a key ally in the battle against HIV/AIDS. To this end, Guyana Television (GTV) has been roped in as a partner. A commissioned series called 'The Right to be Heard' will run on GTV, once a week, for six weeks, portraying issues that youth commonly confront within the matrix of HIV/AIDS.

The onus, UNICEF says, is on the youth: to represent themselves, participate in broader forums that involve larger issues, and collectively organise to battle the threat of HIV/AIDS. Individuals interested in more information on the groups, organisations and programmes mentioned in this article, may contact UNICEF in Georgetown.