UNAIDS released a report in advance of World AIDS Day with hopeful news about the epidemic: there has been nearly a 50 percent reduction in new infections across 25 low and middle income countries. In Africa, AIDS deaths have been cut by one-third. And around the world, in the last two years 60 percent more people have been able to access HIV treatment. As UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe put it, “We are moving from despair to hope.”
Young people are a key part of this progress.
UNAIDS: “The actions of young people are shaping the future of AIDS across the world…. Young people are a fulcrum. They remain at the centre of the epidemic and they have the power, through their leadership, to definitively change the course of the AIDS epidemic.”
More young people are preventing HIV: globally, prevalence among young people ages 15-24 worldwide fell by 27 percent between 2001 and 2011. “The largest progress was seen in South and South-East Asia where HIV prevalence among young men and women fell by 50%. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean followed with a drop of more than 35% among young men and women.” Last year, UNAIDS also found that in 16 of the 21 worst affected countries, HIV prevalence declined by more than 25 percent – with the decline largely driven by behavior changes among young people.
Along with taking steps to protect themselves and their partners, young people are also leaders in HIV activism – as we saw at the XIX International AIDS conference in July, where youth leaders gathered and collaborated on the YouthForce Declaration and were prominent on panels and activism efforts throughout the conference.
UNAIDS fully acknowledges youth leadership: “Young people are a fulcrum. They remain at the centre of the epidemic and they have the power, through their leadership, to definitively change the course of the AIDS epidemic.” The report addresses young people directly, urging them to “continue to engage and lead.”
But young people can’t do it alone. Defeating AIDS requires a global commitment of resources and political will. It requires pragmatic approaches: comprehensive information about HIV prevention for all young people. It requires that attention be paid to marginalized groups, including injection drug users; men who have sex with men; and commercial sex workers – some of the most vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, and, often due to laws and stigma, among the most difficult to reach with prevention and treatment programs.
And fighting the HIV epidemic takes money and investment in young people: nations must make a commitment to robust domestic and global funding for HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment and support youth leadership and engagement in the HIV/AIDS response.
Young people have proven that they can and will lead the prevention revolution. World leaders must follow their lead and support their efforts to achieve the goal of an AIDS-free generation.