Adolescents and HIV

"Accepting HIV can be difficult... I was 19 years old and I was a teenager. I was tested, and my results came out positive. But I was in denial. When I was supposed to go in and see the sister for my blood test, I didn't go. I just went home. Even if you told me to go to the clinic or for counselling or treatment, there was no way I would. Because HIV has a lot of stigma. So, when I found out I had HIV, I did not go to back for the pills... I took another route and went home."

Annah Mathekga

 
What is HIV?

HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The main way that HIV-is passed on from one person to another is through unprotected sex with a person living with HIV. Babies can also contract HIV from their HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. When HIV is in the body it weakens the immune system, which is the 'defense force' that protects the body against infection and disease.

The virus hijacks the immune system's CD4 cells and turns them into factories that make more copies of HIV in your body. In the process of making more HIV, your CD4 cells are destroyed. When the immune system is weakened, the body cannot fight infections and diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB). If the virus continues to reproduce in the body without treatment, this leads to AIDS, the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which is a term used to describe the collection of illnesses that occur because of an immune system weakened by HIV.

Preventing HIV

An HIV infection can be prevented by practising safe sex - using a condom correctly every time you have sexual intercourse. HIV-positive mothers can enrol in the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme, which involves taking antiretroviral treatment (ART), practising safer sex and exclusive breastfeeding. Strictly following the PMTCT programme reduces the chance of passing on HIV to the baby.

How are Adolescents infected with HIV?

Adolescents are infected with HIV in the same way as anybody else - through having unprotected sex with somebody who has HIV, through blood contact or through being infected with the virus as an infant by an HIV-positive mother. Adolescents and  youth are often more at risk of contracting HIV because of a lack of knowledge about HIV and not being able to recognise their own risk of getting infected.

Young people are also more at risk because of:

  • The high chances of having another sexually transmitted infection,
  • Having older sexual partners, 
  • Having sex in exchange for money or gifts,
  • Peer pressure to have unprotected sex,
  • Through alcohol or drug use which may make them more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour.

HIV affects everybody in the same way, but adolescents might have particular problems coping with and living with HIV, and adhering to treatment due to a range of factors related to puberty. Young people often struggle to come to terms with being diagnosed with HIV and may be in denial about this for some time.