HIV in Adolescents: Breaking the Silence

By Eric Kilongi | April 4, 2014

Around the world, adolescents living with HIV aren’t able to access the care and treatment that they need. Read on to learn more about EGPAF’s work closing the care and treatment gap in adolescents.

Oliver Asselin/CDI

The silence is ominous — many young people living with HIV are afraid to share their status with the news media or even with their friends, classmates, and teachers.  You cannot be too sure how others will react to news that someone they know is living with HIV. Yet the challenge of HIV among teens and adolescents is real.

According to UNICEF, half of all new HIV infections in 2012 occurred in people between the ages of 15 and 24. Worldwide, disproportionately high HIV prevalence is reported among key adolescent populations.

But many young people, like 15-year-old Austin Taika, are fighting to overcome HIV stigma and discrimination.  Taika knows that HIV thrives in secrecy and he is speaking out about the virus to as many young people as he can.

Taika was infected with HIV at birth and he knows too well the many challenges HIV-positive teens and adolescents must face. He has learned how to live with the virus without compromising his health and is eager to help other teenagers and adolescents learn more about HIV and AIDS.

While many HIV prevention programs focus on mother-baby pairs or adults, at the Ntcheu District Hospital, located in Malawi’s central region, a special program for teenagers and adolescents has made the hospital become similar to a referral center for children and teenagers with HIV.

Taika and nearly 140 children between age 8 and 20 meet regularly with their peers in the “teen’s club” at the hospital. They play games, share their personal experiences living with HIV, and learn important skills such as adhering to treatment.

“During adolescence, teens often struggle with their body changes, moods swings, and social issues,”  said Musaku Mwenechaya, technical officer with Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) in Malawi. “We designed a special program for children, teenagers, and adolescents because they have unique needs.”

Implemented with funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEFPAR) through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the program was designed to care for the unique needs of children, teenagers, and adolescents.EGPAF plans to expand the program to toher distrcits they support throughout Malawi. 

Implementation research has shown that as children living with HIV grow older, their treatment, care, and support needs also change. They face new challenges adhering to medications, taking greater responsibility for their own health, and accessing the services and information they need to lead healthy and productive lives.

“Through age and development segregated programs, children and teenagers do activities that help to express themselves, learn how to live with HIV and support each other,” said Evelyn Msodoka,  a nurse and coordinator of the teen’s club at Ntcheu District Hospital.

Undoubtedly, those who are among the first to disclose their HIV status can endure scorn and discrimination. But the impact of disclosure on stigma reduction is  well worth the efforts.

People with the courage of their convictions, like Taika, will help tame the rising threat of HIV infections among teenagers. Their candor will help close the treatment gap for adolescents living with HIV and pave the way for an AIDS-free generation.