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AIDS soaring 'unchecked' among youth in Central and Eastern Europe, UNICEF warns

AIDS soaring 'unchecked' among youth in Central and Eastern Europe, UNICEF warns

As HIV/AIDS continues to ravage parts of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, the epidemic has developed a "young face" as it has begun to move virtually unchecked into the youth population, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warns in a new report released today.

According to The Social Monitor, which tracks the health and well-being of youth in the Central European region, HIV/AIDS is spreading faster in Central and Eastern Europe than anywhere in the world.

By the end of 2001, there were an estimated one million people with HIV/AIDS in the region, up from 420,000 in 1998. Between 1997 and 2000, almost 80 per cent of new infections were registered among people under 29. In Estonia - which has the region's highest rate of new infections - the report finds that 38 per cent of registered infections are among those under the age of 20, and 90 per cent among people under 30.

The report points to substance abuse, particularly drug injection, earlier sexual activity among youth and the growing number of sex workers as the underlying causes for the rapid spread of the disease in some countries.

The high prevalence of other sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis and gonorrhoea, along with the rising number of infections among women and a generally low level of prevention awareness, suggest that conditions are ripe for the further spread of HIV. According to the report, national responses to the crisis in some of the hardest hit countries have had little effect.

But small-scale projects in some countries are changing behaviours of those in high-risk groups and attitudes towards those affected and could provide models for future action. The reports suggests that ensuring that schools address HIV more openly and creating effective systems to track the epidemic were among areas for immediate policy action to curb the spread of the disease.

Speaking at a UN press briefing on the launch of the report, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy stressed that the "time to act is now" to ensure that a tragedy similar to what has occurred in sub-Saharan Africa - where HIV/AIDS has not only devastated populations young and old, but has "punctured a hole" in all the continent's development objectives - can be avoided.