As AIDS treatments reach more people than ever, UN says young women are at higher risk

Concillia Muhau, after and before she got AIDS drugs.

Despite gains that include an additional 1.2 million people who now have access to life-saving AIDS treatments, according to a UNAIDS report, a worrying trend shows that girls and women between the ages of 15 and 24 remain at a high risk of unknowingly contracting the virus.

“Young women are facing a triple threat,” Michel Sidibé, head of UNAIDS, said in a statement. “They are at high risk of HIV infection, have low rates of HIV testing and have poor adherence to treatment. The world is failing young women and we urgently need to do more.”

Young women were infected with HIV at a rate of 7,500 a week in 2015. The rate for young women dropped 6 percent from 2005 when there were 420,000 new cases to 390,000 in 2015, according to the UNAIDS report. At that rate, it would not be possible to reach the goal of reducing the number of new infections in young women to 100,000 by 2020. The problem centers around the 15- to 19-year-old age group in eastern and southern Africa, according to the report.

Preventing the spread of HIV among girls and women requires a series of interventions. UNAIDS maintains that HIV prevention efforts need to be ramped up, including more emphasis on keeping both boys and girls in school longer.

“Adolescence is a turbulent time, and a particularly dangerous time for young women living in sub-Saharan Africa,” Sidibé wrote in the report’s forward. “As they transition to adulthood, their risk of becoming infected with HIV increases dramatically. When women and girls are empowered, they have the means to protect themselves from becoming infected with HIV and to access HIV services.”

The theme and overall message of the report stresses the importance of prevention and treatment at every age. A case study from South Africa showed the cycle of infection among age groups. Men between the ages of 25 and 40 were most often infected with HIV by female partners in their age group. But those men were most likely to infect women under 25 years old. As those women get older, they infect their peers, keeping the cycle of infection spinning.

(Credit: UNAIDS)

(Credit: UNAIDS)

An estimated 18.2 million people were being treated for AIDS as of June. That number is up from the 15 million people in treatment in 2014. As a result, AIDS-related deaths are down from the peak of 2 million in 2005 to 1.1 million in 2015. Advocates said that increasing access to treatment is a vital component in the AIDS eradication effort.

At the current rate of progress, the goal of treating 30 million people by 2020 is achievable, according to UNAIDS. With fewer people dying and more people on treatment, newer challenges are emerging. The co-infection of AIDS and TB is an increasing concern.

Medical needs change as HIV-infected individuals get older. There are 5.8 million people 50 and older are living HIV. Older people with HIV are at risk of chronic disease of rates of up to five times greater than younger people, which is partly related to the potential long-term side-effects from treatment.

“The progress we have made is remarkable, particularly around treatment, but it is also incredibly fragile,” said Sidibé. “New threats are emerging and if we do not act now we risk resurgence and resistance. We have seen this with TB. We must not make the same mistakes again.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.