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Young people lack knowledge about HIV/AIDS, UN survey finds

Young people lack knowledge about HIV/AIDS, UN survey finds

Most young people in the world have no idea how HIV/AIDS spreads or how to protect themselves from the disease, although many are becoming sexually active, according to the findings released today by three United Nations agencies.

Jointly produced by UNICEF, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the report - Young People and HIV/AIDS: Opportunity in Crisis - stresses that young people are both the hardest hit by the disease and the key to overcoming it, but strategies to combat the epidemic often ignore them.

"We have two dovetailing trends here that are, in large, part, driving the HIV/AIDS crisis," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "One is that young people have sex…The other is that young people actually don't have the proper knowledge to protect themselves."

Surveys from 60 countries show that more than 50 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 have grave misconceptions about how HIV/AIDS spreads. In some of the countries most at risk from the virus, the proportion of young people who know how to protect themselves is as low as 20 per cent.

"Every day, 6,000 young people get infected with HIV," said Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS. "Each one of these infections can be prevented. Prevention is both cost-effective and feasible: It costs as little as $8 annually to protect a young person out of school."

Unmarried boys and girls are sexually active before age 15 in many countries with high HIV rates, the report says. Adolescent girls are particularly at risk, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is estimated that more than two-thirds of newly infected 15 to 19 year-olds are female.

The spread of HIV/AIDS is dropping in such countries as Thailand and Uganda because young people are being taught to behave safely, the report notes, adding that a safe environment is vital for them to develop the skills necessary to avoid infection.

“Young people have unquestionably demonstrated that they are capable of making responsible choices to protect themselves when provided support,” said WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland.