An Open Conversation With amfAR's Own About HIV In Adolescents
Director Dr. Annette Sohn of TREAT Asia shares her wisdom with us.
Understanding HIV is about more than just its infection-status. Finding the cure could be the be-all and end-all of HIV (pronounced in both gross overstatement and good faith) but unfortunately, that’s not yet available. The current conversation is about our collective-global responsibility to reverse adolescent HIV death rates. Here we introduce amfAR’s TREAT Asia (Therapeutics Research, Education, and AIDS Training in Asia) — the HIV-targeted grassroots-movement performs research, education, training and community advocacy on the virus’ manifold-fronts in the Asia-Pacific region. Director Dr. Annette Sohn of TREAT Asia shared her expert-opinion with us, back by an extensive experience treating HIV among children in Southeast Asia.
Statistics for HIV-positive adolescents worsen on. The second-leading cause of death in adolescents world-wide, it remains the only sub-group with increasing death rates. Quick snapshot of the Asia-Pacific region includes 230,000 infected children and adolescents (2013) — in turn, only 25% receive proper antiretroviral treatment.
The main drivers of the youth epidemic rest specific to the socioeconomic-cultural-contexts per society. Of course, certain behaviors including unprotected sex and injection drug-use will drive transmission regardless; poor adolescent decision-making ups the risk more. But what’s not mentioned yet, is the reaction that precedes all infectious no-cure infections — enduring stigma, discrimination and fear. Ignorance and discriminatory laws reign over public health awareness efforts. “Reducing stigma and discrimination is a human rights and legal issue, but it is ultimately about how we change people’s hearts and minds to accept those they have been judged on the basis of having an infection. Children can be expelled on mere rumors and mandatory pre-employment HIV clearance required for some” Dr. Sohn described. To avoid such personal stigma, HIV-positive mothers often refuse antiretroviral medication (ART) or to bottle-feed. In turn, infants get infected. Notice the vicious cycle?
“Reducing stigma and discrimination is a human rights and legal issue, but it is ultimately about how we change people’s hearts and minds to accept those they have been judged on the basis of having an infection.”
TREAT Asia then turned to mobilize HIV-positive youth leaders to engage in the HIV activism narrative. Dr. Sohn remains convinced the social media-hyped public will respond to TREAT Asia and adolescent activism on networking platforms. After all anything can be exchanged, no longer confined to the strict dictates of the stigmatized national media circuit. Its extensive reach will “provide a way for high-risk groups who may not have a voice such as young people (especially in the Asia-Pacific region) who struggle with coming-of-age issues on top of maintaining their health, and help them navigate social conventions and see a real path for their future.”
Dr. Sohn forewarned in conclusion, “We have not fixed the HIV problem, there is no ‘mission accomplished.’ We may have changed the world as we knew it through the AIDS response, but that does not mean we can stop any time soon. There are too many people being infected, living, and dying with the disease every day.” Her hopes for the future? That we stop stigma and discrimination, and that we find a cure soon.