The Gen Zs and Young Adults in the Gains Made in the War Against HIV/AID

by Amref Health Africa

The world just celebrated day World Aids Day on December 1, 2022, in dedication to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by Human Immunodeficiency Viruses (HIV) and paying homage to those who have died of the disease. Unknown to the majority of the young Kenyans, especially the millennials and the digital natives, the world has made tremendous strides in dealing with HIV and AIDs and the fact that this endemic disease is no longer perceived as a symbol of stigma, or a death sentence speaks of gains that the emergent generation and different stakeholders need to build on.

The National Syndemic Disease Control Council formally National AIDS Control Council (NACC) reports tremendous gains in the reduction of prevalence noting that among adults (15-49 years) and the general population, prevalence has declined from 9.1% in 2000 to 4.3% in 2021. The gains also depict encouraging news as new HIV infections have also reduced considerably while NACC also reports that annual AIDS-related deaths declined from 52,964 in 2010 to 22,373 in 2021 which is still relatively high. However, with HIV treatment, these relatively high numbers of deaths are symptomatic of the gaps in securing the rights of people living with HIV. The crux, therefore, is to broadly situate what this year’s theme EQUALISE, means and the extent to which the calls to end inequalities that impact access to HIV treatment and prevention services speak to the relatively high number of deaths. In situating such conversations, it is also important to address the high rates of infections among young adults and teens in Kenya.

Indeed, reducing new infections, guaranteeing the rights of people living with the virus, and addressing the misinformation and the emergence of stigmatization among the millennials and the Gen Zs, who by virtue of their date of birth are far removed from the height of the HIV crisis in the 1990s remain germane today just as stigmatization was two decades ago.

Globally, studies show that young people now make up most of new HIV diagnoses and that the younger they are – as you move from millennials to Gen Zs born in the digital era – the more misinformed they are of HIV and AIDs and the higher the proclivity for them to stigmatise.

In Kenya, a study published in February 2022 established that HIV/AIDS is still the leading cause of morbidity and mortality among adolescents living with HIV (ALHIV). Different reports have established that close to a third of new HIV infections are among adolescents and young people and that slightly more than a third of new infections are of young people below 24 years. Whereas most of the young adults in Kenya just like in many parts of the world are far removed from the ravages of the HIV/AIDs pandemic of the 1990s, a number of them face challenges that can easily be addressed.

The deluge of information accessible to these young adults essentially underscores the need for increased uptake of testing and many of them are aware and have reported the desire to know their status. However, given that this is a generation that has grown up with choices, their sex life and the illiberal nature of their choices put the knowledge of HIV status in perspective, especially with regard to sexual partners and the proclivity to hang on the illiberal belief to change partners because it is a new world, and they are young and hippie. Outside, of their enculturation and lifestyle, studies have also shown that they face a number of barriers to testing. Other than cost, this is a generation that still lives with the fear of HIV stigma, is almost always vilified by some health care providers when they present themselves for testing and a majority still have to subject themselves to parental or guardian consent laws, a situation that may put them at crossroads with adults especially those who judge them on moral grounds.

To a large extent, therefore, the commitment to stop new cases and to secure the rights of those living with HIV, sorts of confluences in dealing with the younger generation that needs to be made aware both of their responsibilities to socialize and inculcate responsible behaviours that are mitigative and most importantly to use their access to information to help those living with the virus secure their rights to treatment and care. No one deserves to die of the virus because of a lack of access to HIV/AIDs treatment. EQUALISE was an apt theme on World AIDS Day 2022 and the urgent call is for all the stakeholders to concertedly work on creating safe spaces and enhancing protection for adolescents and young adults to access health services without being judged; and those living with the virus to enjoy the inalienable right to treatment.

Kennedy Wakoli

Authors: Kennedy Wakoli – Sexual Reproductive Health Specialist and Fidelina Ndunge -Adolescent and Youth Sexual Reproductive Health Advisor.

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