Invest in services to stem HIV infections

Nicholas Shiateya

The youth, especially young women, are the most-at-risk age group for new HIV infections, according to data published by the National AIDS Control Council (NACC).

Nearly two out of 10 new infections in Kenya are those of young women between the ages of 15 and 24 years. NACC gives several reasons why the youth aged between 15 years and 24 years are an-at-risk group for new HIV infections.

One is that young people do not have access to sexual and reproductive health information and services responsive to their special needs. The consequences of this gap are real. For instance, five out of ten Kenyans aged between 15 and 19 years do not know their HIV status.

Considering that these 15 to 19-year-olds are sexually active, it is clear that Kenyans aged 15 to 24 years are in trouble. According to the Ministry of Health’s assessment through the Kenya Service Provision Assessment Survey of 2010, only 7 per cent of public health facilities have the ability to offer youth-friendly services.

The shortage of youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services means that young people do not have adequate physical facilities where they can seek services. It also means they do not have access to enough skilled and experienced health workers to handle their needs.

Besides lack of access to information about their sexual and reproductive health, the youth face barriers in accessing HIV prevention options like condoms and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (or PrEP) or treatment options like Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).

To right this wrong, we must invest in youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services. This could include buying condoms, putting up well-equipped, youth-friendly health facilities and recruiting youth-friendly health workers. Another key area of investment in the sexual and reproductive health continuum is social and behaviour change communication.

National and county governments have to consistently invest in social and behaviour change communication programmes to influence young people to make informed decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health. Social and behaviour change communication programmes have to go beyond delivering simple messages or slogans.

They have to include the full range of ways in which youth share information such as mass media, community-level activities, interpersonal communication and social media among other tools. It is also important that social and behaviour change communication programmes run consistently over a long period of time.

This will ensure that desirable behaviour becomes engrained in the minds of the youth, thereby increasing the chances that they will act on that knowledge. The only way that such a large scale investment can be done consistently over a five, 10 or 15-year period is if it is done by government through national level and county budgets.

Obviously, providing youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services is just one of many interventions that can be employed to curb the rising threat of HIV infections to Kenyan youth. But it needs to be done sooner rather than later.

As Kenya joins the rest of the world in commemorating World AIDS day 2016, one tangible and achievable commitment that we can make as a nation is to provide Kenya’s youth with friendly sexual and reproductive health information and services.

This commitment will no doubt go a long way in helping them beat the threat of HIV. —The writer is the Manager, Programmes and Projects, Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung Kenya —[email protected]

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