Feature story

More needs to be done to help young people most at risk of HIV infection

10 August 2009

Credit: UNAIDS/O.O'Hanlon

In general, HIV prevention services in the Asia region are currently not reaching young people who are most at risk of infection, which include those who inject drugs, who engage in unprotected male to male sex and those involved in sex work and their clients. In order to address this situation the Asia Pacific Regional UN Coordination Group on Most at Risk Young People hosted a symposium at the IX International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

According to epidemic models presented in the 2008 AIDS in Asia Commission report, over 95% of all new HIV infections in the Asia region occur among such most at risk young populations. However, over 90% of resources for young people as a group are spent on low-risk youth, who represent less than 5% of infections.

Entitled "HIV prevention and most at risk young people", the event was sponsored jointly by UNFPA, UNICEF, UNESCO, UNAIDS, UNDP, WHO and is supported by 7Sisters, the Coalition of Asia Pacific Regional Networks on HIV/AIDS. It examined, among other issues, how the specific needs of most at risk young people should be addressed, what works and what doesn't and how partnerships between youth, NGOs and government can be strengthened.

The symposium discussed the nexus of unsafe sexual behaviours among most at risk young people where a number of such practices coexist in the same environment. Sex work, drug use and unprotected sex with multiple partners can all occur in the same social network. Therefore, participants looked at an approach which addresses a multiplicity of needs, meshing and coordinating previously implemented programmes and ensuring a youth-friendly approach.

A comprehensive, evidence-informed response, it was argued, requires firm commitment from donors and governments to address the specific needs of most at risk young people, and an examination of the contexts in which these risks occur. The engagement of this group in developing the policies, programmes and processes that directly affect and benefit them is seen as a prerequisite. Young people played an active and central role in this event as the practical aspect of exactly how to get youth involved in decision making was explored.

Specific objectives of the meeting also included promoting awareness among policy makers and programme planners on the urgent need for HIV prevention for most at risk young people and encouraging increased collection, analysis and use of data on this key group to support advocacy efforts and inform budget allocation priorities. Sharing experience of programming in this area, both positive and not so positive, was on the agenda too.

Among those taking part in the event were the UNFPA's Deputy Executive Director (Programme), Purnima Mane. UNESCO’s Jan de Lind van Wijngaarden, and UNICEF’s Margaret Sheehan spoke on behalf of the Asia Pacific Regional UN Coordination Group on Most at Risk Young People. James Chau, member of the AIDS2031 initiative, UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador and Chinese television presenter facilitated the panel discussion. The panel also involved representatives of the medical profession, NGOs, health ministries and representatives of young people involved in sex work, drug use and male to male sex.