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Citra's story: HIV peer education heals messengers as well

By Jennifer Chen

JAKARTA, INDONESIA, March 2006

Citra* was only 15 when she became pregnant. Her 23-year-old boyfriend, however, embraced the idea of becoming a father. He and Citra were married five months into the pregnancy. Their future together seemed secure. “I was so happy on my wedding day,” says Citra. “There was a lot of love between us.”

Two months later, her husband fell desperately ill and had to be hospitalized. At the hospital in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, doctors conducted an HIV test on him. It was positive. Following her doctor’s advice, Citra also took a test. Her results, too, were positive. “My whole world fell apart,” she recalls. “I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I didn’t know who to turn to.”

Citra, now 17, is one of tens of thousands of children living with HIV and AIDS in East Asia and the Pacific. In this region, an estimated 31,000 children younger than 15 live with HIV and AIDS. Most caught the virus through their mother. But a growing number of children and adolescents are being exposed to the virus through unsafe sex or intravenous drug use, experts say. Current public health experts’ estimates predict that without effective interventions, the number of new infections among children in the region could rise to more than 25,000 a year by 2015.

Despite the escalating risk, children and young people in East Asia and the Pacific remain in the dark about the virus. Surveys reveal widespread ignorance of the virus. For instance, in Citra’s home country of Indonesia, a UNICEF survey found that 61 per cent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 knew about AIDS but were not sure how to protect themselves from HIV.

Experts blame this lack of knowledge partly on cultural taboos against discussing sex and sexuality in an open and frank manner. Meanwhile, the lack of youth-friendly health services, coupled with persistent stigma and discrimination, exacerbate the ignorance over HIV.

Citra’s story poignantly illustrates these challenges. Even after her diagnosis and her husband’s death, health care workers neglected her. The consequences were devastating. Although she was given antiretroviral (ARV) treatment during the remainder of her pregnancy, her doctor failed to continue providing Citra and her son the life-prolonging drugs after he was born. Citra’s baby later tested positive for HIV.

Despondent and uncertain about the future, Citra was eventually referred to a Jakarta-based non-government organization called Yayasan Pelita Ilmu, or YPI, which focuses on HIV and AIDS prevention and care. UNICEF works closely with NGOs such as YPI to provide effective peer counselling and prevention education for young people like Citra.

For Citra, the introduction to YPI marked a turning point. After a few peer counselling sessions, her outlook brightened. "I learned to accept what happened to me and become more comfortable with myself". After a few peer counselling sessions, her outlook brightened. "I learned to accept what happened to me and become more comfortable with myself,” she says. YPI helped Citra in other ways. The group taught her parents to accept their daughter’s condition. It also provides ARVs to her son, who is now a chubby, healthy 2-year-old.

Above all, the counselling gave Citra a sense of purpose. A month after her son was born, she decided to undergo training to become a peer educator. Now she devotes four days a week to being a peer educator, travelling to schools and drug rehabilitation centres across Java. She talks to students, injecting drug users, young mothers – anyone who is willing to hear her message.

“I want to take care of the children and teach them not to make the same mistakes as their parents,” she says.

* Not her real name.

 

 
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