Sharon Camp, Ph.D., is the President and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute.
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day on December 1 is accountability: Stop AIDS, Keep the Promise.
When it was first discovered in 1981, the virus that causes AIDS threatened to wreak havoc on the lives of millions worldwide, and today – with 40 million living with the virus and four million new infections this year – the virus has kept its dire promise.
On the other hand, the global community has fallen short of its promise to provide adequate funding for prevention, treatment and care. Our failure holds grave consequences for the world's youth. We promised to take care of our future generations, but do today's adolescents – tomorrow's adults – have the knowledge, skills and resources to have healthy relationships and protect themselves against diseases such as HIV/AIDS?
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Recent studies by the Guttmacher Institute and colleagues provide a good yardstick by which to measure our progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the virus has hit the hardest. The findings are clear and troubling: Adolescents in Ghana, Uganda, Burkina Faso and Malawi are not getting the information they need to protect themselves from HIV.
- Awareness of AIDS is widespread, but knowledge of how to prevent HIV is not: Fewer than one in three adolescents in these four countries can both correctly identify ways of preventing HIV and reject major misconceptions about HIV.
- Fewer than three in 10 adolescents use any kind of contraceptive the first time they have sex. Most say they didn't use a condom because they "felt safe" or didn't have one.
- One of the best ways to reach young people before they become sexually active – school-based sex education – remains underutilized: Fewer than half of young women and fewer than 40% of young men ever attended sex education classes.
But the main message from our research is not pessimism, but hope. Young people are working hard to achieve their dreams. More than seven in 10 adolescents in Ghana, Uganda and Malawi expect to complete their education, and many young people aspire to good jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their families. Witness this exchange with one Ghanaian adolescent:
I: Now tell me what you will like your life to be like in the next five years.
R: I want to be at a teacher training college.
I: What could make this more or less likely to happen?
R: If I learn hard I can reach where I want to go.
I: But what do you think will not allow you to get to the training college by five years time?
R: If I become pregnant or infected with HIV/AIDS.
This World AIDS Day, young people from around the world are speaking up to draw attention to the need for well-funded, focused and sustained prevention efforts. We owe it to the next generation to support their dreams by promoting sound programs and policies and by opening our pocketbooks to invest in their futures and rid the world of this scourge.
According to a new report, AIDS is now promising to become the third leading cause of death worldwide. AIDS has a pretty good track record for keeping its promises. Will we?
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