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Note to Correspondents
STRICTLY EMBARGOED: 2 July 2002, 15:00 GMT

Note No 200
2 July 2002


As They Begin Sexual Activity Most Don’t Know How to Protect Themselves;
Surveys Underscore Why Youth Are Central to Stemming Pandemic’s Spread

NEW YORK/GENEVA, 2 July 2002 -- In an alarming new finding, a United Nations report released today says the vast majority of the world's young people have no idea how HIV/AIDS is transmitted or how to protect themselves from the disease. Yet the study also shows that adolescence is the time when the majority of people become sexually active.

These trends, which highlight why HIV/AIDS continues to spread so rapidly, are part of a landmark report, Young People and HIV/AIDS: Opportunity in Crisis. Produced by UNICEF, UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation, it is the first comprehensive look at the behaviour and knowledge relating to HIV/AIDS of young people aged 15 to 24. It also includes the latest country-by-country HIV prevalence rates for the age group.

"We have two dovetailing 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," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "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."

The report stresses that young people are at the centre of the HIV/AIDS epidemic: they are both the hardest hit by the disease and also the key to overcoming it. Yet despite this, strategies for responding to the epidemic generally disregard young people.

The UN organisations that published the report called for unparalleled political commitment to raise the financial and human resources necessary for the fight against HIV/AIDS. This is an effort that must centre on working with young people to provide them with knowledge about HIV and how to avoid infection.

Overall, surveys from 60 countries indicate that more than 50 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 harbour serious misconceptions about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted -- a strong indicator that young people are not getting access to the right information. In some of the countries most at risk from the virus, the proportion of young people who have correct knowledge to protect themselves is as low as 20 percent. The result: half of all new infections today are in people between the ages of 15 and 24.

"It is clear that young people do not have the information and means to protect themselves from HIV," said Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS. "Every day 6000 young people get infected with HIV. Each one of these infections can be prevented. Prevention is both cost-effective and feasible: It costs as little as US $8 annually to protect a young person out of school. In every country where HIV transmission has been reduced, it has been among young people that the most spectacular reductions have occurred."

Key findings contained in the report include:

  • Young people lack information about HIV/AIDS. In countries with generalised HIV epidemics, such as Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho and Sierra Leone, more than 80 per cent of young women aged 15 to 24 do not have sufficient knowledge about HIV. In Ukraine, although 99 per cent of girls had heard of AIDS, only 9 per cent could name three ways to avoid infection.
  • In many countries with high HIV prevalence rates, unmarried boys and girls are sexually active before age 15. Recent surveys of boys aged 15 to 19 in Gabon, Haiti and Malawi found that more than a quarter reported having sex before 15.
  • Proper condom use and other preventive behaviours, like abstinence, need to be taught early. In Burkina Faso, only 45 per cent of boys age 15 to 19 reported using a condom with a non-marital partner, compared to 64 per cent of young men aged 20 to 24. In Malawi, the rates were 29 per cent and 47 per cent. A 1999 survey in the Ukraine found that just 28 per cent of young women aged 15 to 24 had used a condom at first sexual intercourse.
  • Adolescent girls are at a very high risk of getting infected, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of newly-infected 15 to 19-year-olds in this region are female. In Ethiopia, Malawi, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for every 15 to 19-year-old boy who is infected, there are five to six girls infected in the same age group.

Young People Key to Overcoming Pandemic

The report highlights that in countries where the spread of HIV/AIDS is subsiding or declining, such as Thailand and Uganda, it is primarily because young men and women are being given the knowledge, tools and services to adopt safe behaviours. It says there is a strong linkage between what young people know and how they act, and that a safe and protective environment is crucial for them to develop the skills necessary to avoid infection. In addition, it says special efforts are needed to reach especially vulnerable young people, such as injecting drug users and commercial sex workers.

"Young people have unquestionably demonstrated that they are capable of making responsible choices to protect themselves when provided support, and they can educate and motivate others to make safe choices," said Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of WHO.

The report outlines 10 steps that countries should take as part of their prevention efforts:

  1. End the silence, stigma and shame.
  2. Provide young people with knowledge and information
  3. Equip young people with life skills to turn knowledge into practice
  4. Provide youth-friendly services
  5. Promote voluntary and confidential HIV testing and counselling
  6. Work with young people, promote their participation
  7. Engage young people who are living with HIV/AIDS
  8. Create safe and supportive environments
  9. Reach out to the young most at risk
  10. Strengthen partnerships, monitor progress.

A Statistical Foundation for a Clear and Urgent Response

The report is based on two fundamental statistical tables. The first shows information from almost every country about infection rates, school attendance, knowledge levels, and sexual behaviour. A second table shows even more detailed information about knowledge and behaviour in 60 countries where HIV prevalence is 1 per cent or higher. The statistics are fairly new, from 1999 or later, so they provide baseline figures for the next ten years.

The new statistics will allow all those fighting HIV/AIDS to truly measure success in meeting global goals and targets. These were set at the June 2001 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS and reinforced at the May 2002 Special Session on Children.

For prevention, the main goals state:

"To reduce by 2005 HIV prevalence among young men and women aged 15-24 in the most affected countries by 25 percent, and 25 per cent globally by 2010."

"By 2005 ensure that at least 90 per cent, and by 2010 at least 95 per cent, of young men and women aged 15 to 24 have access to the information, education (including peer education and youth-specific HIV education) and services necessary to develop the life skills required to reduce vulnerability to HIV infection."

For further information, please contact:

Liza Barrie, UNICEF, Media Chief, (212) 326-7593,
Alfred Ironside, UNICEF Media, New York, (212) 326-7261,
Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Media Geneva, (41 22) 909 5509,
Itai Madabombe, UNICEF Media, New York (212) 326-7412
Anne Winter, UNAIDS, Geneva, (+41 22) 791 4577,
Dominique de Santis, UNAIDS, Geneva, (+41 22) 791 4509,
Andrew Shih, UNAIDS, New York, (+1 212) 584 5030
Chris Powell, Information Officer, WHO, Geneva. Tel. (+41 22) 791 2888

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