UNICEF reports that adolescent deaths from AIDS tripled

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11-year-old Emery Phiri, who was born HIV-positive, attends a self-help group meeting with a caregiver in the village of Michelo, south of the Chikuni Mission in the south of Zambia February 23, 2015. The caregivers in the Jesuit-run home-based care project at the Chikuni Mission run a capacity-building and empowerment project at the household level, offering training and assistance in crop-growing and animal rearing, as well as offering companionship, pastoral care and monitoring. Reuters

Adolescent deaths from AIDS complications have tripled over the last 15 years, according to a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) study released on Nov 27. The study found out that 26 new infections occur every hour, with the majority of cases reported in sub-Saharan Africa.

AIDS is the primary cause of death among adolescents in Africa and the second leading cause of death among adolescents worldwide, according to UNICEF. At the same time, there is no decline in death rate among adolescents compared to other age groups.  About half of people with HIV are in just six countries, specifically South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Girls are more affected in sub-Saharan Africa. Seven in 10 new cases identified in 15 to 19 year olds are among girls. Just over one in 10 are tested for HIV in the region.

“It is critical that young people who are HIV-positive have access to treatment, care and support,” said Craig McClure, chief of HIV/AIDS section at UNICEF. “At the same time, those who are HIV-negative must have access to the knowledge and means to help them to stay that way.”

Less than half of children under two months are tested according to UNICEF’S Statistical Update on Children, Adolescents and AIDS. Over two million children under the age of 15 are infected with HIV. However, only one in three children is currently on treatment.

This suggests that most adolescents who die of AIDS-related illnesses were infected with HIV when they were still infants, 10 to 15 years ago. This was a time when fewer pregnant women and mothers, already infected with HIV, received antiretroviral drugs to prevent the transmission of the virus from the mother to the child. Some of these children live into their teenage years unaware of their status.

Fortunately, since 2000, there has been a 60 per cent reduction in AIDS-related deaths among children under the age of four. This is the result of the efforts to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. On 2014 alone, three in five pregnant women infected received antiretroviral therapy to prevent the transmission. UNICEF is hopeful that there will be improvements in the next generation of adolescents.

“The gains we have made on preventing mother to child transmission are laudable, and to be celebrated,” McClure said. “But immediate investments are needed to get life-saving treatment to children and adolescents who are infected.”

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