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Young people join the fight against HIV/AIDS in Southern Sudan

Girls take a rest during break time in a football match played to commemorate World Aids Day in Yambio
© UNICEF SUDAN/2009/Swangin Bismarck
Girls take a rest during break time in a football match played to commemorate World Aids Day in Yambio, Western Equatoria. The state has one of the lowest awareness about HIV/Aids in Southern Sudan

By Swangin Bismarck

December 1, 2009 (Yambio) — “HIV/Aids is a killer disease without a cure and it can infect anybody,” said 20-year-old Asenta Isaac today during the commemoration of World AIDS Day in Yambio, Western Equatoria State, a place many call the epicenter of the disease in Southern Sudan.

During a somber and otherwise reflective commemoration, several local speakers spoke of the danger HIV/AIDS poses to Southern Sudan and urged for more action from government and humanitarian organizations to help save the region from loosing yet another generation after decades of war.

“I don’t know anything about HIV but I want to learn more” said 18-year-old Martha Jefferies of Yabongo Girls Secondary School in Yambio.

Ignorance due to low levels of education is one of the major impediments to the fight against HIV/Aids in Southern Sudan. Once referred to as ‘the last untouched pocket of Africa in regards to HIV/Aids prevalence,’ Southern Sudan now faces a massive threat from the pandemic.

The two-decade-long civil war, restricted labour migration, trade and travel contained the virus. And while the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Southern Sudan (estimated at 2.6% among adults 15 to 49) is said to be much lower than in neighbouring countries, experts warn this is a false comfort.

With this year’s theme of “Universal Access and Human Rights” making access to testing and treatment centres both accessible and affordable and is particular significance in isolated communities such as Yambio. All the ingredients for the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS are here: up to four million displaced people returning home, high rates of poverty and unemployment, low school enrolments, a rudimentary and disparate health system, underpowered women and young girls, high illiteracy rates, and polygamy. Lack of knowledge too is a cause for alarm: approximately 77% of women don't know how to protect themselves from HIV.

All the above provide a fertile ground for a surge in HIV/AIDS infections in Southern Sudan, a region which has in reality lost a generation to war and could lose yet another generation to HIV/AIDS.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 between the north and south ended two decades of war in Southern Sudan. But with limited data and little field surveillance to calculate the actual prevalence of the diseases in the region, the potential for the dividends of peace to be impacted by HIV/AIDS is all too real.

The UNICEF HIV programme in Southern Sudan focuses on awareness-raising as a preventive measure, developing training modules and capacity building among government and local NGOs. Establishing and supporting Volunteer, Counseling, Treatment (VCT) centres, Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (PMTCT) awareness and emphasizing abstinence as the first choice for the un married are cornerstones of the UNICEF HIV/AIDS programme in the region. To ensure universal access to services, Southern Sudan has established 52 VCT centres of which 31 are supported by UNICEF. In addition, there are 10 antiretroviral therapy (ART) sites where people can access treatment

One approach of awareness has been the life skills education programme, an integrated approach to provide youth and women among others with several practical life skills tailored to positive behavioural change.

An outcome of the life-skills training is women and children with skills in critical thinking, decision-making, communication, negotiation, coping, and self-management - significant interventions in the HIV/AIDS prevention.

Worldwide 1,750 children under the age of 15 become infected with HIV every day and another 15 million have lost one or both parents to HIV.  This is all that most people know about the impact on children of HIV/AIDS.  While these statistics are important, numbers don’t help us appreciate the impact that this disease has on the lives of children (and adults infected with HIV). 

The challenges of containing HIV/Aids in Southern Sudan are staggering but with available resources, the opportunity to prevent HIV/AIDS from reaching epidemic levels exists now.



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