This year’s World AIDS Campaign–Young people: Force for change–was prompted in part by the epidemic’s threat to those under 25 years old. Young people are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. Around half of new HIV infections are in people aged 15-24, the range in which most people start their sexual lives. In 1998, nearly 3 million young people became infected with the virus, equivalent to more than five young men and women every minute of the day, every day of the year. And as HIV rates rise in the general population, new infections are increasingly concentrated in the younger age groups. A recent study in Malawi, for instance, found the annual rate of new HIV infections to be as high as 6% in teenage women, compared with under 1% in women over 35.
But the Campaign also highlights the power of young people. The future of the HIV epidemic lies in their hands. The behaviours they adopt now and those they maintain throughout their sexual lives will determine the course of the epidemic for decades to come. Young people will continue to learn from one another, but their behaviour will depend largely on the information, skills and services that the current generation of adults choose to equip their children with.
Research shows that young people adopt safer sexual behaviour provided they have the information, skills and means to do so. In Senegal, 40% of women under 25 and 65% of men used condoms with non-regular partners in 1997, compared with less than 5% for both sexes at the start of the decade. In fact, given the chance, young people are more likely to protect themselves than adults. In Chile, a 1996 study showed that condom use is highest among 15-18-year-olds, and similar patterns have been found in Brazil and Mexico.
Safer sexual behaviour is becoming the norm among young people in developed countries, too. In several studies in Western Europe, some 60% of young people are now using condoms the very first time they ever have se–a six-fold increase since the early 1990s. Among young people in the United States, abstinence is becoming more common and condom use is rising significantly. Among high school students in 1997, 63% of boys reported that they had used a condom the last time they had sex, up from 55% six years earlier. For girls, condom use rose to 51% from 38% over the same period.