Why Jamaica’s HIV epidemic is still an emergency

Of the 29,000 Jamaicans living with HIV, it is estimated that 1,300 are adolescents. That may not seem like much, but when one considers that only about 39 per cent of adolescent girls and 34 per cent of adolescent boys know what HIV is, how to prevent it and reject myths about transmission – you know the risks facing the teen population. It is scary!   

Yes, HIV infections are going down but we know that for adolescents the rate of decline is slowing down and with the prevalence of risky behaviours and without the necessary investment we must face up to the possibility of our generation losing the fight against HIV and AIDS.

The ‘children are our future’ is not just a mundane saying, it is the stark reality that many of us are realizing way too late. This future of our people is under serious threat as they are vulnerable to infection. So, what is to be done?

The first tool that we must apply in combating adolescent HIV and AIDS is knowledge. Adolescents need to be armed with the correct information to understand sex and sexuality as well as the risks and responsibilities involved in deciding to engage in sex.

A comprehensive approach must be taken to sex education, or any form of health and family life programme in schools. This should include ALL the relevant information, to be taught age appropriately. Too many young people are relying on information from questionable sources. Parents and teachers are still viewed as trusted experts by adolescents. So it is important that they put forward the information and skills that young people require to make responsible choices.

We also need to adjust laws to give young people more access to services, like HIV testing and treatment. We talk a lot about breaking down the walls of stigma and discrimination and clarifying harmful cultural attitudes, beliefs and practices. However, unless the law prioritizes the health and wellbeing of young people and empowers them with access, the people who exploit and endanger adolescent girls and boys will continue to be enabled.  

Many of the vulnerabilities faced by young people are directly related to poverty, exploitation and exclusion. Many are abused, many are confused, and many have little hope to make meaningful progress in life. The consequences usually manifest in depression and other mental health challenges, which can lead to engaging in risky behaviours including transactional sex and poor health seeking. We have to see our young people in the light of their potential. Each one has so much to contribute to Jamaica’s development, but must be facilitated to overcome their challenges. And yes! Overcoming inequities has everything to do with good health.  

Finally, talk to young people. It seems very simple, but it needs to be emphasized. The realities that adolescents face today and vastly different from those experienced by decision makers in their teen years. The information and interventions must be relevant to the lives of young people today or they will not access it.

What I have mentioned is only the tip of the iceberg of factors that we battle with in fighting the HIV epidemic as adolescents in Jamaica. If we are serious about the 2020 and 2030 commitments, young people and adolescents must be made a priority, as we go ALL IN to #EndAdolescentAIDS.

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