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New HIV infections among African Gen Zers pose health threat

According to the UNAIDS, sub-Saharan Africa remains the most vulnerable to continuous new HIV infections among young people from 15 – 24 years.

Despite efforts made by international bodies and governments to control HIV infections, the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed progress significantly.

Last month, The UNAIDS warned the world could face 7.7 million AIDS related deaths in a 10-year period. Usual prevention and treatment services were hugely disrupted by the pandemic, putting lives of the infected at a greater risk of serious illness or death compared to normal times.

HIV in Africa affecting young people particularly

In sub-Saharan Africa, young people remain most vulnerable.

According to the UNAIDS, it is estimated that six in seven new HIV infections are recorded by young women. The East and Southern Africa regions are the most affected, having the highest number of people living with HIV – more than 21 million.

Countries such as Eswatini, Botswana, and Lesotho have the highest prevalence of HIV, with Eswatini accounting for over 26% of cases as of 2020. Additionally, West and Central Africa could have a rise in infections and deaths in the coming years as indicated by UNAIDS.

In Kenya, a recent report indicated that approximately 88 HIV new infections took place per day. The infections were attributed to low condom use and low abstinence adherence.

Despite various abstinence and educational campaigns by different organizations, especially for ages 15-24 years, the infection rate is likely to continue to rise, according to experts.

In Botswana, despite increased HIV awareness, condom use among sexually active young people is declining.

Forced sex and teenage pregnancy is growing due to the pandemic, according to UNICEF. However, the country has made significant progress and recently became the first nation with a severe HIV epidemic to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission.

Only 15 countries have been certified for eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission globally and none had an epidemic as large as Botswana’s according to WHO.

South Africa, which has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world, estimated at 7.7 million, the youth population are the most affected.

Gen Z carry the burden of the HIV pandemic. They are especially susceptible to HIV infections and usually take care of family members who are positive. People aged between 10 – 24 years make up more than 35% of the population in Eastern and Southern Africa, accounting for 400,000 to 600,000 new infections annually.

Curbing the situation

Despite the spike in infections, global efforts have improved access to ART treatment. In 2020, the UNAIDS reported 73% of all people living with HIV were accessing treatment services.

The most significant progress so far has been the decline of mother-to-child HIV transmissions. Last year, 85% of the total infected pregnant women were receiving treatment to preventing transmissions to their own babies.

Young people in Africa are currently at risk and the future workforce is dependent on this population. To reverse the situation and create more awareness, involving them is just as important.

Barriers to the participation of young people need to be removed and support for their meaningful engagement and leadership in all HIV-related processes and decision-making spaces needs to be scaled up to ensure the sustainability of responses.

According to the UNAIDS, only one in three young people demonstrate accurate knowledge of HIV prevention.

Having access to high-quality, gender responsive, age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education programs, both in school and out of school, must be urgently strengthened to ensure young people have the knowledge they need to prevent new HIV infections.