THERE has been a sharp rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among people aged between 15 and 24 with more than 24 000 people (in this age group) having tested for STIs in 2009, compared to 8 500 cases recorded in 2008, a report just released by the Zimbabwe National AIDS Council (NAC) has revealed.
STIs heighten vulnerability to HIV infection, and this age group is one of the hardest hit.
Orirando Manwere, a NAC information officer, agreed that the rise in STI infections was an urgent call for action.
“There is a need to carry out a study on why this is the trend, especially in the 15 to 24 age-group, but generally this could be attributed to early sexual debut among the youth, unprotected sex, and abuse by older men – particularly among the women and girls,” he said.
Manwere said Zimbabwe’s current policy on sex education did not allow HIV/AIDS organisations to go into schools to teach young people about issues like condom use, but discussions between non-governmental organisations and Government were still going on.
“It is clear that the youth are indeed sexually active and need to be empowered on sexual and reproductive health issues. It is therefore important that we go into schools and teach them on issues such as condom use,” he said.
Mr Itai Rusike, the executive director of the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH), a network of civic groups that promote health awareness, blamed the rise in STIs on “a too narrow focus on HIV/AIDS treatment”.
“In the last two to four years we have concentrated our focus on access to treatment, especially access to ARVs (antiretroviral), at the expense of preventive services. Right now the bulk of our AIDS levy money [a 3 percent tax on income] is going towards procurement of ARVs, to the detriment of health education awareness campaigns, especially for the young adults who are supposed to be our hope for the future,” he said.
In 2009, the CWGH conducted an assessment of young people’s needs for sexual reproductive health and HIV/AIDS interventions, which indicated that sex work, intergenerational relationships, early marriage, early sexual debut and unplanned pregnancy were among the challenges they faced.
In its recently published 2009 annual report, the CWGH noted that young people had limited access to reproductive health information and services.
“If we do not invest in preventive services, all the gains we have scored so far in HIV prevalence rate will be eroded. Youth-led peer education activities need to be well co-coordinated and supported with financial resources, education materials, mentoring and capacity building, in order for them to be sustainable,” Rusike said.
An AIDS activist Martha Tholanah attributed the STI increase to the violence that occurred in the aftermath of the March 2008 election.
“Youths were used to target other youths. We had many reported cases of sexual violence which were never followed up. Many people that were expected to follow up these issues were very fearful of the repercussions if they dealt with these issues,” she said.
She added that many organisations, especially those working with young people, were still struggling to get on their feet after the economic and political disruptions of 2008 and beyond.