Empowering young women key to vision for an AIDS-free generation

Profs Soraya Seedat, Rafique Moosa, Keymanthri Moodley and Quarraisha Abdool Karim.

“We won’t end HIV/Aids in young women and adolescent girls tomorrow but it has to be part of our vision if we are to have an AIDS-free generation and end this disease.”

Speaking at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) Women’s Forum event, NRF A-rated scientist and associate scientific director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, said up to three times as many young women between the ages of 15 and 24 years old on the African continent are living with HIV compared to their male peers.

 “Adolescent girls and young women are sick or dying from AIDS or HIV-related complications at a rapid rate, which underscores the importance of strengthening HIV treatment and prevention for this particular group,” she said.

Abdool Karim said that in 2018, there were 37,8 million people living with HIV globally. “Last year alone there were approximately 770 000 HIV-related deaths and we recorded 1,6 million new infections.” She said Africa has the highest incidence of the disease with approximately 70% of all reported incidences stemming from the continent. “One in every five infections take place in South Africa daily and the biggest challenge facing us, is preventing HIV infection among adolescent girls and young women.”

One of the ways in which Abdool Karim and her colleagues envisage doing so, is fast-tracking the United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) 2020 strategy which stipulates reducing new infections to 500 000 globally by the end of next year. “But in 2018, we recorded 1,6 million new infections which means this new goal is a tall order.”

According to UNAIDS, the number of new HIV infections in the overall population in sub-Saharan Africa declined by about 46% between 2000 and 2015, and by 37% in young people. Abdool Karim posited that these declines were small and slow to alter the vulnerability of adolescent girls and young women.

Abdool Karim said that the disproportionately high HIV infection rate in young women occurs for a number of reasons. “At the root of it, lies the issue of power and gender disparity but the cause of the vulnerability in young women is compounded by structural, social and biological factors.”

She argued for the further development of HIV prevention strategies wherein women are in direct control: “Empowering young women in this regard is one of the cornerstones of the strategy to shatter disproportionately high infection rates,” she said. Two strategies include limiting HIV risk through the use of a topical cream (microbicide) before and after sexual intercourse and the oral use of antiretroviral-containing agents by women who are not infected at all.

Abdool Karim, who was awarded the ASSAf Science-for-Society Gold Medal for outstanding achievement in scientific thinking to the benefit of society also received the Order of Mapungubwe from the South African President in 2013 for her excellent work in the field of HIV/Aids and Tuberculosis Research and Health Policy Development.
Florence de Vries