KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Faith was 14 the first time she had sex. And like most teens, she didn’t think about HIV or pregnancy. Then, the unthinkable happened.
“When I found out my status, it was very shocking,” the teen mother says in a testimonial about contracting the virus that causes AIDS. “I wish I had someone to sit me down and tell me more about HIV, pregnancy. … Maybe if I had the information I would have been more responsible and know what to do before I act.”
Faith’s story is one of many being told as part of a campaign in this Caribbean nation to sensitize teen girls and young women about the life-altering repercussions of unprotected sex.
“The statistics are clear: Girls are three times more likely to be infected in Jamaica,” said Patricia Watson, a former journalist and executive director of Eve for Life, the nongovernmental charitable organization that recently launched the Eve Teens Stories campaign as part of its effort to raise awareness about women and girls living with AIDS. “If it’s three boys, you have nine girls being infected.”
While the infection rate among young girls isn’t tracked the way it is for other high-risk groups, such as sex workers and men who have sex with men, Watson says Jamaica’s 18 percent teen pregnancy rate — one of the highest in the Caribbean — puts girls at high risk of contracting HIV.
She and others here are calling for more robust programs to address the epidemic among girls. Their call joins that of the United Nations on the eve of the world’s largest AIDS conference in Washington, D.C., that says “women and young people” must have a say in decisions made about the disease.
“Here is a set of young people for whom if we don’t do something at this point and time, then we are going to have a horrible epidemic on our hands in another 20 or 30 years,” said Watson, who plans to attend the conference where Eve for Life will debut a 20-minute short film, Together We Can, documenting the journey of HIV-positive mothers like Faith in Jamaica.
“If we don’t give them the knowledge that they didn’t get in the first place, including on HIV and how to navigate relationships, then we are going to have serious issues.’’
Faith and the other teens’ image and last names are not used in the video because they fear being stigmatized.
According to a U.N. report released ahead of the International AIDS Conference, young adults account for 40 percent of all adult HIV infections. In 2011, more than 2,400 of those between the ages of 15 and 24 became infected daily. That’s an estimated 1.2 million women and girls, the report said.
And while infection rates and AIDS-related deaths have sharply declined in the past decade in the Caribbean because of improved access to anti-retroviral drugs and treatment, challenges remain in getting to an AIDS-free generation, the report noted.
“We have children who are being infected at a young age,” said Joy Crawford, a nurse and co-founder of Eve for Life. “But a lot of programs do not target these groups. Our response is still very general.”
Dr. Michel de Groulard, regional program advisor for UNAIDS in Trinidad, said more needs to be done throughout the Caribbean to tackle the HIV pandemic. Not only is education needed to address stigmatization and discrimination, which continue to hinder prevention and treatment in the region, but more must be done to better understand what’s happening socially and in the sexual lives of teens, in particular.
“The level of knowledge and awareness is relatively high and the level of condom use is … yet you still have new infection rates that are still too high,” de Groulard said.
But the cloud of secrecy around sex and other socio-cultural issues aren’t just affecting the epidemic among young people. They are also impacting other high-risk groups, such as men who have sex with men (MSM).
Jamaica, according to another U.N. report, has the highest rate of HIV infections — 32 percent — in the Caribbean among MSM, and the second highest in the world after Kenya.