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Young health volunteer tackles HIV among adolescents in Brazil

By Kent Page

Globally, AIDS-related deaths overall fell by 30 per cent between 2005 and 2012, but increased by 50 per cent among adolescents aged 10–19 years during that same period.

Here is what one boy, already a seven-year veteran of health volunteering, is doing to help prevent HIV infection among adolescents in Fortaleza, Brazil.

FORTALEZA, Brazil, 17 July 2014 – Rodrigo Xavier is 18 years old. But he’s had a ‘career’ as a health advocate since he was 11.

© UNICEF Brazil/2014/Page
Volunteer health agent Rodrigo Xavier, 18, stands in front of a Youth Aware project banner. Youth Aware promotes health and information on the prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, among young people.

“I got interested in health issues at a very young age,” he explains. “When I was 2 years old, I got pneumonia twice. The second time, I almost died. But, I survived, and maybe that’s why I like to help other people learn about health.”

Early days

When Rodrigo was 11, he joined the School Radio programme, through which he was able to speak about the health issues that interested him so much. “All I had to do was speak into the microphone and people would only hear me,” he recalls. “That was good – because I was too shy to talk to them. But speaking on the radio about basic health issues was the beginning of the end of my shyness,” he says.

“The more I learned, the more I wanted to share health information with other people.”

When he was 12, he joined the Health and Disease Prevention in Schools programme, which is supported by UNICEF Brazil. “We learned about health issues and then spoke in small groups with other kids our age,” says Rodrigo. “I was no longer hidden behind a microphone, but speaking with other teenagers or presenting to them in class. It wasn’t easy for me, but I saw how much other kids wanted to learn about health issues from me and began to gain my self-confidence.”

There were some limitations to his work. “The programme talked about all kinds of health and nutrition issues, including sexual and reproductive health, but you had to be a little bit older to talk about sex, so I had to wait,” he says. “But I learned as much as I could because I thought it was interesting and, in my home, sexuality was openly discussed.”

Work with adolescent issues

When Rodrigo was 15, he became an Adolescent Health Agent, through another programme supported by UNICEF Brazil. “We were trained in both health and communication skills so we could really talk in detail to other adolescents about issues they are most concerned about – sex, pregnancy, drugs, HIV, alcohol. By then, I was really becoming confident in myself and about the health information I was sharing.

It’s important to be able to address these subjects in a fun and informative way so everyone is comfortable,” he continues. “That way, you build up trust. Lots of girls come to me privately and ask me questions because they are worried they may be pregnant and are too scared to talk with their parents. I always tell them they need to get tested at the health clinic. Sometimes I accompany them to the health clinic because they are too nervous to go there by themselves.”

Preventing HIV

Now, Rodrigo volunteers with Youth Aware. Youth Aware is a UNICEF Brazil–initiated pilot project that promotes health and information on the prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, as well as encouraging an increase in rapid testing for HIV, syphilis and viral hepatitis among young people 15–24 years of age, in Fortaleza.

© UNICEF Brazil/2014/Page
The Youth Aware project visits educational centres for adolescents in conflict with the law to share health information and explain the importance of being tested for diseases like HIV.

“We have a mobile health van that offers voluntary HIV testing and counselling in various locations of the city,” says Rodrigo. “Some of us have also gone to educational centres for adolescents in conflict with the law, and others to the Fortaleza Carnival to share health information and explain the importance of being tested for diseases to young people.”

The sessions, which often include theatrical plays, are popular. “Our group of girls had lots of questions,” reports Maria*, after Youth Aware has paid a visit to the Aldaci Barbosa Mota Educational Centre for Adolescent Girls in Conflict with the Law. “We didn’t know much about the female condom, some wondered if you could get certain diseases from kissing, and others had questions about sexuality…It was good that they came to speak with us, because many of us are going to be here for a while, and we’re not comfortable speaking with adults about things like HIV.”

After the session, every one of the more than seventy girls decides to take the rapid HIV test. “It was important for me to take the test just to know,” says Maria. “Now we all know our status and we know how to protect ourselves from diseases like HIV and syphilis. It’s very important information for us.”

For Rodrigo’s part, it’s clear that his path is helping young people like Maria along their own paths towards better health, all the while helping him overcome his own shyness and gain confidence.

In Brazil, the Youth Aware project is known as Fique Sabendo Jovem.

*Name has been changed.   



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