Mexico City, July 31, 2008—Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean should improve and expand sexuality education programmes in order to prevent HIV and AIDS and reduce the impact of the epidemic in the region, a group of United Nations agencies said today.
Comprehensive sexuality education is one of the lynchpins of HIV prevention, especially if tailored to the needs of young people, the group argued.
The Regional Directors' Group, representing ten UN agencies, funds and programmes, met here today to support and urge Ministers of Health and Education from the region to improve the availability and quality of sexuality education for young people. The Ministers will meet in the Mexican capital tomorrow to discuss the status of sexuality education and HIV prevention.
"Evidence consistently shows that school-based education about sex, relationships and HIV works," said Mark Richmond, UNESCO's Global Coordinator for HIV and AIDS.
But comprehensive programmes currently reach relatively few. A global study revealed that only 20 per cent of young women and 33 per cent of young men aged 15-24 could correctly identify ways of preventing HIV transmission.
The Directors affirmed that now is a crucial time to improve education programmes and to ensure a strong focus on sexual and reproductive health as well as HIV prevention.
While some countries in the region are offering such programmes, they are not generally available nation-wide, nor are they mandatory for students. In some cases programmes face fierce opposition. "When adults are silent on the issue of HIV/AIDS the consequences for children are often fatal," said Nils Kastberg, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Youth-friendly prevention and information services are absolutely crucial and need to be part of all our education systems."
New infections are concentrated among young people. Those aged between 15 and 24 account for 45 percent of all infections among adults globally. In 2007, there were an estimated 20,000 new infections among adults in the Caribbean and 140,000 in Latin America. Currently 47,000 boys and girls are living with HIV in Latin America and the Caribbean, and over 400,000 HIV-positive young people between 15 and 24 years of age. Over 210 HIV-related deaths occur every day in the region, and in the Caribbean, AIDS remains one of the leading causes of death among adults.
"Better education programmes will empower young people – especially girls -- to protect themselves and prevent the spread of the virus", said Marcela Suazo, Director for Latin America and the Caribbean of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. She also emphasized that sexuality education will make boys more conscious about the need for gender equality and contribute to reducing gender-based violence.
According to studies, those who have little or no education are more than twice as likely to be infected by HIV, compared to young people with at least 5 to 6 years of education.
The Regional Directors argued that comprehensive sexuality education should start before young people become sexually active. Programmes should include the development of life skills, communication, and focus on healthy relationships as well as human rights. Successful education programmes help youth postpone sexual relations, and also help them adopt safe and healthy behaviour once they are sexually active.
The education system also needs to address the management of HIV and AIDS in the school setting, ensuring that children's right to an education is guaranteed for all, including those young people living with the virus.
In addition to the risks posed to young people, high levels of HIV transmission continue among other vulnerable populations, including sex workers and men who have sex with men "Unfortunately these groups are not adequately reached by HIV prevention, treatment and care services, "said Gottfried Hirnschall, head of the HIV Program of the Pan American Health Organization. Stigma and discrimination, including homophobia, remain major obstacles to prevention programs geared towards these groups.
The meeting of Ministers of Health and Education focusing on comprehensive sexuality education, convened by the Mexican government, takes place on the eve of the XVII International AIDS Conference.
"The AIDS conference represents a unique opportunity to examine our challenges, but also to highlight the progress in the response the HIV epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean," says Pedro Medrano, Regional Director of the World Food Program and chairman of the Regional Directors Group on HIV. "We encourage governments and civil society from Latin America and the Caribbean to share with the rest of the world the advances the region has made, particularly the scaling up of treatment."
According to the latest United Nations reports, Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest coverage of antiretroviral treatment in the developing world, reaching 62% of the people in need.
The Regional Directors Group was created in 2003 to enhance the synergy of the United Nations response to HIV in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is comprised of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Bank. All of these organizations are co-sponsors of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
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