The Asia-Pacific region is facing a ‘hidden epidemic’ of HIV among adolescents. There were an estimated 50,000 new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15-19 in 2014, accounting for 15 percent of new infections. There are now around 220,000 adolescents living with HIV in the region, with large cities like Manila, Bangkok, Hanoi and Jakarta hubs of new infections.
Although new HIV infections are falling overall, they are rising among adolescents from key populations, in particular young gay men and other men who have sex with men. The rise in new infections coincides with an increase in risky behaviour, such as multiple sexual partners and inconsistent condom use.
These findings come in a new report, ‘Adolescents: Under the Radar in the Asia-Pacific AIDS Response’, published today by the Asia-Pacific Inter-Agency Task Team on Young Key Populations, which includes UNICEF, UNAIDS and others.
“Adolescence is a time of transition and risk-taking, as children navigate the difficult journey to adulthood,” Daniel Toole, Regional Director for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific, said. “UNICEF is working with governments throughout the Asia-Pacific region to ensure they meet their obligations to protect adolescents’ health, including by providing access to adolescent-sensitive HIV testing and treatment services.”
Adolescents at higher risk of HIV include gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender people, injecting drug users, and people who buy and sell sex. It will not be possible to end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat by 2030 without tackling the epidemic among adolescents.
To transform the situation, the report recommends that governments develop better data on adolescents, strategies for HIV prevention, and adolescent-specific laws and policies. These should include comprehensive sexuality education in schools and through social media, information on where to get an HIV test, condom use, and HIV testing and treatment services designed for adolescents.
It is vital for adolescents to know their HIV status, and get treatment if they need it, but in many countries they are turned away from HIV testing centres. Only 10 countries in the region are known to have laws and policies enabling independent consent for young people to access HIV testing and related services.
”We want all adolescents regardless of where they live or who they are to enjoy every opportunity to grow into healthy and productive adults,” said Steve Kraus, Director of UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific. “But this is only possible if their rights to HIV combination prevention and sexual and reproductive health services are respected. We must ensure that no barrier stands in their way.”
In addition to the legal barriers, adolescents living with HIV often face stigma and discrimination, which can discourage them from seeking treatment. To overcome this challenge, adolescents need to be involved in designing services that meet their needs.
“Adolescents themselves must be involved in the HIV response,” said Niluka Perera from Youth Voices Count. “We need to stop ignoring adolescents because they’re hard to reach, and battle the stigma and discrimination that adolescents living with HIV still face, including from health care providers. Their voices need to be heard loud and clear.”
Other findings in the report include:
- The HIV burden among adolescents falls heaviest on ten countries in the region, which together account for 98 per cent of adolescents aged 10 to 19 living with HIV in Asia-Pacific. These are: Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam.
- Among countries where data are available, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines have the highest proportion of adolescents living with HIV, accounting for almost 10 per cent of total people living with HIV in each country.
- In the Philippines, new HIV infections among 15-19 year olds have risen by 50 per cent over four years, from an estimated 800 in 2010 to 1,210 in 2014.
- In South Asia, AIDS-related deaths among 10-19 year olds have almost quadrupled from around 1,500 in 2001 to 5,300 in 2014. In East Asia and the Pacific, deaths have increased from 1,000 to 1,300 over the same period.