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Getting the better of HIV

© UNICEF Malaysia/2006/Nadchatram
An estimated 5,000 school-going children in Kedah benefitted from the Ministry of Education and UNICEF's HIV Life-Skills Based Education pilot project.

By Indra Nadchatram

This year’s International AIDS Memorial Day (IAMD) theme "Leading the Way to a World Without AIDS" calls on the world to act now, urgently and decisively, to ensure, amongst others, that the next generation of children is AIDS-free. The world must take urgent account of the specific impact of AIDS on children and young people, or there will be no chance of meeting Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 6 – to halt and begin to reverse the spread of the disease by 2015.

KUALA LUMPUR, 20 May 2007 – Pretty twenty-one year old Tasha is excited about her future. Like her friends, she has dreams of being the best she can, of finding love and having her own family. Tasha is also HIV-positive.

The psychology undergraduate is one of 1,705 young people in Malaysia who was infected with HIV before the age of 19. Like many others, Tasha’s scanty knowledge of HIV and AIDS was liberally peppered with myths.

“I thought you could only get HIV from a ‘drug addict’ or ‘prostitute’ because those were the messages I got from the media,” she says. “My ex-boyfriend comes from a good family, like me. He was pursuing a law degree in UK. I didn’t even think of HIV when we decided to have sex.”

Despite almost thirty years of lessons learnt in the history of HIV and AIDS, tragically, it seems as if the virus is winning on all fronts. With each passing year, HIV is becoming a disease of the young and most vulnerable. According to the UN’s lead agency on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, one young person between the age of 15 and 25 gets infected with HIV every 15 seconds. Of the 40 million people living with HIV today, at least a third are young people under the age of 25.

Cultural sensitivities

The picture is no less grim in Malaysia. Like in most parts of the world, young people in the country account for an increasing number of HIV infections every year.  June 2006 statistics from the Ministry of Health reveal that close to 38 per cent of the 73,427 HIV cases are amongst young people between 13 to 29 years old. Because of the progression of HIV, it is likely that they were infected before their mid-twenties and possibly even during their teens.

A lack of knowledge about HIV is one of the main reasons cited for the rapid spread of the virus and its related stigma and discrimination. Cultural sensitivities often prevent an open discussion on the subject. Silence, ignorance, denial and complacency complement the menu of obstacles.

“There was hardly any sex education when I was schooling. We learnt a little bit during biology classes but my teacher was so embarrassed to talk about it that it made my friends and I really uncomfortable,” Tasha says with a tinge of sadness in her warm brown eyes. “I wish my teacher had taught me the facts. I probably would not be HIV-positive today if I knew more.”

Doing right by our young

If nothing else, Tasha’s story should be a lesson to all of us involved in preventing the spread of HIV. To do right by our young, we must understand the special reasons as to why they are especially vulnerable to HIV infection.

Adolescence is an exciting time, but also a confusing one. It is marked by emerging feelings, discovery and exploration of new behaviours and relationships. It is a time when young people feel they need to test their boundaries to determine who they are and what they can do. Expectations are “imposed” upon them and on their part, youth have a need for acceptance by family, peers and society. Advice sought is normally from friends, which more often than not, can lead them astray.

UNICEF’s global experiences prove that prevention programs targeting young people could significantly help curtail the AIDS epidemic. Establishing a healthy lifestyle during these adolescence years is critical to keeping our young people safe and a lot easier than having to change risky behaviour later on.

In Malaysia, UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education to take important steps to introduce HIV Life Skills-Based Education (LSBE) into the Malaysian school system. In a pilot program in 2005 and 2006, teachers from 20 primary and secondary schools in Kedah were trained in personal and social development as well as prevention of health and social problems such as drug abuse and HIV/AIDS to benefit an estimated 5,000 school-going children in the state. By demonstrating the effectiveness of the pilot project at the state level, UNICEF will support the scaling up of HIV/AIDS prevention education into different states.

Beating the virus

Hopefully the Government’s commitment, complemented with programs by NGOs, faith-based organisations, the private sector and the media, will change the trend of HIV in the country and save many other young people from being infected.

While it may seem as if it’s too late for Tasha, the young woman is determined to rise above her infection.
 
“I am not going to let this virus beat me! I was very depressed when I found out I was positive. But I have the best parents in the world and they have helped me discover new hope,” Tasha says passionately.

“I know that my family and everyone close to me, we’ve grown so much in the past few years. I’ve learnt that my self-esteem is precious, so are my dreams. I’m going to have the best time I can. I’m going to be the best I can be,” she adds with a twinkle and smile in her eyes.  

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the young person profiled in this story.

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International AIDS Memorial Day (IAMD), observed annually on the third Sunday of May, is among the largest and oldest grassroots mobilisation campaigns for HIV/AIDS awareness in the world. Now in its 24th year, IAMD has become more than just a memorial to commemorate the lives lost to AIDS. It provides opportunities to educate people about HIV/AIDS; inform policymakers about steps to take in stopping the disease; and create community dialogue about prevention, care and treatment. 

 

 

 

 

International AIDS Memorial Day 2007

Sunday, 20 May 2007
Leading the Way to a World without AIDS

(external link)


Video


November 2005:

UNICEF Representative to Malaysia Gaye Phillips (2004-2007) speaks about the impact of HIV and AIDS in the country.

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