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HIV hitting young at the rate of one every 14 seconds

The spread of Aids among adolescents may significantly slow the growth of the world's population, a United Nations report warned.

About 6,000 youngsters become infected with the HIV virus every day, the equivalent of one every 14 seconds, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). The majority are female.

The world's population, currently 6.3 billion, is projected to rise to 8.9 billion by 2050. If Aids-related deaths in Africa, Asia and Latin America are not checked, that figure will be cut to about 7 billion.

The difficulty in estimating future population growth is complicated by the fact that half of all Aids infections occur among those aged between 15 and 24, the next generation of parents.

There are around 1.2 billion adolescents, defined as those aged between 10 and 19, the UNFPA's annual report said. Nearly half of the world's total population is under 25.

The report said: "HIV/AIDS has become a disease of young people, with young adults aged 15 to 24 accounting for half of the some 5 million new cases of HIV infection worldwide each year.

"Yet young people often lack the information, skills and services they need to protect themselves from HIV infection. Providing these is crucial to turning back the epidemic."

About 36 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS infections and by 2050 the disease is expected to claim as many as 278 million lives.

By 2010, it is anticipated there will be 25 million AIDS orphans. The report found that 44 of the 107 countries surveyed did not include AIDS education in their schools.

Longer-term projections suggested the world's population would begin to fall after 2050. There was a trend towards later marriages in many countries, a change welcomed by the agency.

But it was not universal. "Around 82 million girls in developing countries who are now aged 10 to 17 will be married before their 18th birthday," the report said. "In some countries, the majority of girls still marry before age 18. These include 60% in Nepal, 76% in Niger and 50% in India."

Launching the report, Thoraya Obaid, the executive director of UNFPA, said: "This report is a wake-up call for governments to increase funding and expand information and services to young people. If we do not provide the investment this will be a global catastrophe."

The report urged governments to do more to meet the development goals set at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994.

Young people are increasingly responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS around the world because of poverty and a severe lack of information and prevention services.

Every 14 seconds a person between 15 and 24 is infected with the virus. They now account for half of all new cases of the disease, the U.N. Population Fund said in its annual State of the World's Population report.

"We will have a global catastrophe if we ignore young people and ignore their needs," said Obaid in a news conference in London.

The "Making 1 Billion Count" report cautions that there is now the biggest generation of adolescents in history. 1.2 billion of the world's 6.3 billion population are between 10 and 19 and many are facing deadly diseases, unwanted pregnancy and poverty.

HIV/AIDS has emerged as one of the greatest threats. Aside from the high infection rate, the epidemic also has orphaned 13 million children under age 15, the report said.

If those trends continue, the next generation of adults will face greater poverty and stunted economic progress, the report said.

The report estimates the economic benefit of a single averted HIV/AIDS infection is $34,600 for a poor country and the social benefits are even greater.

It called for more investment in youth-friendly services, family planning and education programs to help young people with reproductive health issues.

"This is a huge opportunity. It is a one-time opportunity that will not occur again," said Alex Marshall, an author of the report.

Poverty is a factor in the spread of HIV, the report said, because some poor girls exchange sex for money for school fees or to help their families, placing them at risk of infection.

Discussing sexual behavior is taboo in many countries, so many young people do not know how to protect themselves. In Somalia, the report says, just 26 percent of adolescent girls have heard of AIDS and only 1 percent know how to protect themselves.

Obaid said she didn't believe educating youngsters about safe sex would make them more sexually active.

"I would like to stress that giving young people this information is safe, it doesn't lead to promiscuous behavior, as some people say," she said. "On the contrary, it empowers young people to take positive action in their lives and may save their lives as well."

Obaid said the U.N. agency's core message was "ABC":

  • Abstaining from sexual activity
  • Being faithful to one partner
  • Correct use of condoms.

    In sub-Saharan Africa, which has the most cases of HIV/AIDS among youths, about 8.6 million have HIV/AIDS, two-thirds of them female. In South Asia, 1.1 millions youths are infected, 62 percent of them female.

    The rate of new infections also is growing rapidly in countries like India and Russia, Marshall said.

    The U.N. report also said poverty, early marriage, unwanted pregnancy and homelessness were major issues facing the world's adolescents. Half are poor and a quarter live in extreme poverty, earning less than a dollar a day.

    Among the poorest and least-educated populations, early marriage of girls and expectations of early childbearing persist, contributing to high maternal mortality and reducing girls' chances for education.

    Teenage mothers are twice as likely to die in childbirth as women in their 20s; girls under 16 are five times more likely to die than women in their 20s, and 14 million young mothers aged 15-19 give birth each year. About 5 million girls between 15 and 19 undergo unsafe abortion every year, the report said.

    Copyright © 2007 Jishi Samuel