By Wilson Allan Phiri
There are growing concerns from health stakeholders over the continued failure by most youths to disclose HIV status.
According to latest data from the National Aids Commission (NAC), 33% of new HIV infections is among adolescent girls and young women aged between 15 and 24.
By December 2020, NAC statistics indicated that a majority of young people who tested positive in the year were from rural areas.
Rewind to 2018, 14 thousand young people between the age ranges of 15 to 24 tested HIV positive out of 38 thousand new infections registered in the year.
The data presented shows that Awareness of status and status discloser is low among young people with 67% of HIV positive young men aged between 20-24 and 58% of HIV positive adolescent girls and young women aged between 15 and 19 said to be unaware of their status.
To compound the problem, there are some parents in society who do not disclose to their children about having transmitted the virus to them at birth.
Such is the case with Mchinji district based 22 year old Patrick Phiri who only knew about his status when he was in standard 7 at the age of 13.
Patrick, and his two siblings, were born HIV positive and are currently on ART treatment.
As Patrick concedes that not only was knowing his status at a tender age the toughest experience life had to offer but it also changed his life.
For instance, Patrick almost quit school after being marginalized by fellow peers who were blinded by unfounded fears of contracting the virus by just being in contact with him.
That was the scale of stigma and discrimination young Patrick had to contend with.
Sadly, one thing that Patrick had dreaded the most finally came to pass.
Economic hurdles pushed him to drop out of school when he was in Form 4 and he now takes the huge responsibility of being the family bread winner as his father was incapacitated by a long illness.
In this regard, Patrick believes any assistance to help him set up a small business would translate to his family achieving financial stability.
He however asked government to prioritize young people living with HIV and AIDS in the disbursement of loans under NEEF.
Despite the country making progress in fight against HIV and AIDS , it has been established that numbers of young people seeking HIV testing services are dropping owing to stigma and discrimination as well as being denied access to social services.
These challenges have not stopped young people from indulging in practices endangering their lives as Timveni attested to in Mchinji district where one night in October drug and substance abuse was rampant not excluding sexual activities.
This might not sound strange as it is common practice in most communities.
On this particular night, a 19-year-old young woman, who asked for anonymity, revealed that she is HIV positive but was forced to venture into commercial sex work due to poverty.
She also disclosed that she does not use protection when sleeping with her clients, let alone disclose her status to them.
But according Emily Chinkho, who is HIV positive and coordinates affairs of Young people living with HIV and AIDS in Mchinji district, youths would opt to hide their status just to preserve their dignity in the community.
Emily also conceded having told her husband, who is also HIV positive, about her status when they got married.
Emily has appealed to various stakeholders to champion for financial support towards Young people living with HIV and AIDS to among others help in ensuring uptake of nutritious diet.
According to Timveni findings, Mchinji district has 1800 young people that are open to disclose their HIV status and share their stories.
Currently, National Statistical Office figures show that the district has a total population of 602,305 with youths accounting for 294,540.
In 2020, health authorities conducted 77,077 tests in the district out of which 36,426 were young people.
In the same year, 1920 youths below the age of 24 tested HIV positive.
Mchinji District Youth Officer Modilin Shema acknowledged that young people in Mchinji district chose not to make public their HIV status, a development which is derailing efforts aimed at fighting HIV and AIDS among young people.
Commenting on efforts authorities in the district are taking to convince many young people to come forward and disclose their HIV status, Shema said stakeholders must embrace transformative approach to woo youths on the subject.
Taking his turn, Elizabeth Grazer Patriotic Foundation linkage nursing officer Vincent Nyapigoti agreed that that acceptance and disclosure of HIV status among young people is of great concern across the country.
According to Nyapigoti, there is need to put much effort in advocating for mindset change as regards acceptance of one’s status if the battle of HIV and AIDS is to be won among youths.
Despite the usual approach in raising awareness campaign in fight against HIV and AIDS, the country is still grappling with prevalence rate which stands at 8.5 %.
Currently, the country is being driven by 2020-2025 National Strategic Plan and Vision 2062 in as far as combating HIV and AIDS is concerned.
The 2020-2025 National Strategic Plan advocates for 95% people getting tested and know their status, 95% should be put on ART and 95% should have their viral suppressed.
On his part, Light House Deputy Clinical Manager Joe Gumulire said policies should focus on engaging the young generation more for positive results.
Gumulire said though the country is doing well grey areas that need quick attention especially during this Covid 19 era still persists.
Despite having relevant policies in place, attention towards fighting HIV and AIDS is facing greater threat from COVID -19.
The pandemic has increased pressure on health workers thereby limiting sensitization work on HIV prevention.
Meanwhile, the National AIDS Commission has acknowledged that resistance to disclose HIV status among people is a big challenge which requires swift action.
As NAC spokesperson Karen Msisya puts it, there is need to embrace unity in addressing issues surrounding HIV and AIDS.
Msisya has stressed that NAC is looking into issues affecting young people living with HIV as they are common across the country.
For both sexes, comprehensive knowledge about HIV increases with age, educational attainment and wealth.
Statistics indicate that early sexual debut is high in the country with around 14 percent of young people having sex before the age of 15.
Ministry of Health records show that Malawi has reduced new infections by 60% from 56,000 in 2010 to 19,000 in 2021.
Though more still needs to be done to bring the infections down to zero, current progress is at stake if the resistance to get tested and willingly disclose one’s HIV status more especially among youths is not urgently addressed.