Safer sex by Africa’s young drives HIV rates down

Young people in Africa are leading a “revolution” in HIV prevention and driving down rates of the disease by having safer sex and fewer sexual partners, the United Nations AIDS programme said on Tuesday.

The prevalence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS is falling among young people in 16 of the 25 countries most affected by the disease, a study by UNAIDS found, with many of them on track to hit a 25 percent reduction target in HIV/AIDS rates in 15- to 24-year-olds by the end of the year.

“Young people have shown that they can be agents of change in the prevention revolution,” the report said.

It called on governments worldwide to learn from this progress and provide comprehensive programmes for sexual health education, access to HIV testing and wide availability of prevention methods such as condoms.

An estimated 5 million young people around the world aged between 15 and 24 are living with HIV, the often fatal and incurable virus that causes AIDS. Nearly 80 percent of those people live in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV is spread during sex, in blood and breast milk, and by contaminated needles.

According to UNAIDS, an estimated 900,000 new infections occurred among young people in 2008 and the vast majority of those cases were in young women in Africa.

In a study published ahead a global AIDS conference due to be held in Vienna next week, UNAIDS found that in 16 of the 25 worst affected countries, rates of HIV had been falling among young people, with some of the most dramatic declines seen in Kenya, where there was a 60 percent change between 2000 and 2005.

Botswana, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe have all achieved a goal set agreed in 2001 to reduce HIV prevalence in 15 to 24-year-olds by 25 percent by 2010, it said. Burundi, Lesotho, Rwanda, Swaziland, the Bahamas and Haiti were all “likely to achieve” it.

The study found the main drivers of the reductions were changes in sexual behaviour. Young people in 13 of the 25 countries were waiting longer before they become sexually active. In more than half of the 25 countries, young people were choosing to have fewer sexual partners.

Condom use was also on the increase, the study found, with 10 countries reporting more use of condoms among women and 13 reporting increased condom use among men. Cameroon, Tanzania and Uganda reported increases in condom use by both sexes.

UNAIDS said in November that an estimated 33.4 million people worldwide were currently infected with the AIDS virus.

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters)

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