Toward an AIDS-free generation
Leo Kenny, Dr Tajudeen Oyewale

Young people must be treated with dignity, respect and without moral judgement, regardless of whether or not they use drugs, who they have sex with and why, or whether they are HIV positive or not

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    Photo- BIG STOCK

As the world’s population continues to increase we are seeing the rise of the largest population of young people that the world has ever known. UNAIDS envisages an AIDS-free generation, but it is young people who must, and will, make this vision a reality.

As UN Day draws near, it is important to highlight young people as the change-makers that they are, as the greatest hope for getting to zero. That’s “Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.”

Bangladesh is a country that has low HIV prevalence, but continues to be high risk. This means that demographic factors such as population density, poverty, gender inequality and porous national borders remain challenges to the AIDS epidemic. HIV prevalence in Bangladesh remains low at 0.01% of the general population; however, some features of the HIV epidemic in Bangladesh warrant more attention.

The Global AIDS Report 2013 identified Bangladesh as one of four countries in the Asia Pacific region where the rate of new HIV infection increased by over 25% between 2001 and 2011, and that young people (aged 15-24 years) account for an estimated 50% of all new HIV infections compared with 40% worldwide, revealing that young people are more important than ever for HIV prevention in Bangladesh.

A combination of appropriate education and services for young people are the first steps toward HIV prevention and eradication. When young people receive correct, complete information about HIV and AIDS they gain the power to make informed decision with regards to their sexual health and behaviour.

Yet only 17.7% of young people in Bangladesh are estimated to have comprehensive knowledge of HIV prevention and a fewer proportion access to lifesaving services. The ever present challenge to HIV prevention continues to be limited access to HIV prevention information and services that are tailored to the unique needs of young people, particularly sexual and reproductive health and HIV treatment services. Moreover, educating people early on in life helps people to avoid unsafe behaviours and scenarios where they may be at risk of HIV infection.

Not only does HIV education and awareness helps to defuse the stigma and discrimination facing people who are at risk of becoming infected with HIV, or are living with HIV, but it is also vital in enabling people to access services. Without access to services for testing and treatment, people are unable to learn about their HIV status and consequently unable to protect themselves and others against infection. Services that incorporate the unique needs of young people are especially important, because young people have different needs with regards to information, counselling, testing, condoms, harm-reduction strategies and care for sexually transmitted infections including relationships than others.

The perceptions of others around being a young person, whether they be perceived as a victim, a deviant, or other, can influence the behaviour of a young person and have unintended consequences.

Young people must be treated with dignity, respect and without moral judgement, regardless of whether or not they use drugs, who they have sex with and why, or whether they are HIV positive or not. In doing so, systems that protect them from abuse, exploitation and violence should be enabled and strengthened.

HIV is everyone’s business and more young people need to be engaged in the conversation about HIV prevention, treatment, and care for the benefit of all. Around the world, collective voices and community action has proven to be vital in defusing the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV and AIDS.

The onus of reliable information, attitudes that transform social stigma, and the accessibility of services and support depend on community and religious leaders, schools, parents and young people. Young people can and will be the driving force for Getting to Zero, but HIV prevention education and services by all are the first steps to empowering young people as change-makers for our future.

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Leo Kenny

Leo Kenny is country coordinator, UNAIDS

Dr Tajudeen Oyewale

Dr Tajudeen Oyewale is chief of HIV-AIDS UNICEF. This op-ed has been written to mark UN day on October 24, which this year is focusing on Youth for Development.

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