About 570 Ugandan girls and young women aged 15 to 24 get infected with HIV every week, according to the HIV/AIDS situation analysis by Uganda AIDS Commission. The Uganda AIDS Commission Director General, Dr. Christine Ondoa, yesterday told MPs that girls in the university age group are at a high risk of contracting the killer virus.
Ondoa, who was accompanied by Prof. Narathius Asingwire, a consultant for the National HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan, presented the National HIV/AIDS Strategic plan 2015/2020 to members of parliament on the HIV/AIDS committee.
Asingwire said: “Recent UNAIDS data shows that each week in Uganda, 570 young women aged between 15 and 24 years get infected with HIV. In Africa, Uganda is second to South Africa where 2,363 people get infected with HIV weekly, compared to 468 for Kenya,491, for Tanzania, 25 for Rwanda and 2 for Burundi.” The figure is just one of the many statistics that confirm that too many girls in this age group in Uganda are dangerously sexually active, most especially those aged 20-24 years.
According to the findings of the Uganda AIDS Indicator Survey 2011, the average Ugandan girl begins to have sex at the age of 17 although many of them are already sexually active by the age of 15 while a few remain virgins until their 20s.
During the survey, about 60% of females aged 20-24 indicated that they had had sex within a period of four months and only 5% said they had never had sex. More shocking was that girls aged 15-24 were the most involved in transactional sex (for money or gifts). 41.1% confessed that they had ever slept with a man in exchange for money or gifts. No wonder, 15.8% of the girls in this age group indicated that they had ever suffered from a sexually transmitted disease.
Asingwire attributed the high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among youth to increasing poverty levels in communities where rich men take advantage of the poor students. “Also some people assume that virgins are HIV free, they forget that some youth are born with HIV and the cycle continues,” he added.
The revelation alarmed MPs, who called for increased funding and vigilance towards the fight against HIV/AIDS. “Engaging into early sex has contributed to HIV among youth. Some youth fear pregnancy more than being exposed to HIV,” Bududa Woman MP, Justine Khainza said. She added that many young people do not fear HIV because those on anti-retroviral treatment look healthy. The committee’s chairperson, Dr. Medard Bitekyerezo (Mbarara municipality). said: “This calls for more government funding on the HIV programmes. People should know that government has to finance the HIV programmes countrywide. The source of income is taxation, which will be deducted from the tax payers.”
Dr. John Mutono (Butebo) said the campaign to fight HIV should be taken to the social media platforms mostly used by youth such as Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsup. Benjamin Kadet (Bunyaruguru) blamed the infections on youth abandoning abstinence from sex before marriage. Kiyingi Bbosa (Mawokota South) attributed the increasing HIV rate in youth to unprotected sex, citing the just-ended Kampala city carnival where the organisers never provided condoms to the festival goers. “At night most of the youth were engaged in sex, at the city carnival to our dismay. No packets of condoms were found on the ground the following morning. Only sachets of waragi were littered,” Kiyingi said.
HIV activists react
Equally, anti-HIV/AIDS campaigners expressed concern over the figures. Dr. Stephen Watiti who lives with HIV and works with Mildmay Uganda said: “It is a pity that young girls are getting infected with HIV at a high rate. The girls should negotiate for safer sex, despite the pressures due to poverty. Money and material wealth is not the end of life. Life and the youths’ contribution to the economic development are most important.” Dr. Sabrina Kitaka, a senior paediatric HIV specialist at Mulago hospital commented that: “Many children are born with HIV. But reaching the university does not wash away your responsibility. Living on ARVs does not mean young people should engage in unsafe sex. If you can’t abstain at least practice safer sex and the youths should play an exemplary role in the fight against HIV.” According to the commission, about 1.6 million Ugandans are living with HIV/AIDS, of which 176,948 are children. However, there is evidence of a decline in new infections over the last three years.
Donors to stop funding
Ondoa disclosed that the situation was likely to get worse because two major donors have announced their plans to withdraw financing for HIV/AIDS programmes. “Two major funders namely DANIDA and Irish Aid have announced that they will not fund Uganda’s 2015/2017 midterm budget on HIVAIDS,” she explained. She added that donor withdrawal would affect HIV/AIDS programmes that aim at prevention, treatment (provision of ARVs), care, counselling, advocacy and governance. Ondoa explained that the donors are to divert funding to treatment of non-communicable diseases; particularly cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases which are increasingly becoming major causes of sickness and death in Uganda. DANIDA and Irish AID have been funding 80% of the HIV/AIDS programmes in the country under the civil society fund CSF), according to Ondoa. On the other hand, the US government under PEPFAR is also a major funder for the national HIV/AIDS response.