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UK young lacking in HIV awareness

Young people in the UK do not have sufficient access to information on HIV and STIs says leading children's organisation

The UK is failing to prevent the spread of HIV among young people under the age of 25, according to Unicef UK.

Following the publication of its report HIV Prevention with Young People: The Key to Tackling the Epidemic, Unicef has called for urgent action in dealing with the spread of the disease, stressing that prevention of HIV among young people is key to tackling the global epidemic. Statistics in the report reveal that girls and young women are more vulnerable to HIV infection than young men, with two-thirds of the 5.5 million 15 to 24-year-olds with HIV globally being women.

In 2007 there were 7,734 new HIV diagnoses reported in the UK, almost double the reported number (3,875) in 2000. The UK now has the highest number of new infections in Western Europe, with young people accounting for 10 per cent of all new diagnoses in 2007. HIV is concentrated in two key groups: men who have sex with men and migrant populations from sub-Saharan Africa.

Anita Tiessen, deputy executive director of Unicef UK said: "Many young people have heard of HIV and AIDS but don't know how it's spread and don't believe they are at risk."

"More attention has to be given to preventing the spread of HIV by working alongside young people to make sure that prevention work is designed and delivered in a way that is 'youth friendly' and really meets their needs," she added.

More widely, young people are the group most at risk of contracting other STIs. Young people make up one in eight of the UK population, but account for around half of all the 400,000 infections diagnosed in sexual health clinics across the region.

Peter Boriello, director of the Health Protection Agency's Centre for Infections believes that more needs to be done to encourage young people to practise safer sex in order to reduce STI figures. "We cannot rely on prompt diagnosis and treatment alone – a shift in behaviour is the only way that we will bring down this continued increase in infections," he said.

Research from the UK Youth Parliament shows that 40 per cent of youngsters aged 11-18 thought that their Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) was either poor or very poor, with another third stating that it was average.

Despite moves by the government in 2008 to ensure that personal, health and social education, including SRE, are part of the curriculum for schools in England, research revealed that young people still find it difficult to access adequate sex education.

Youngsters report feeling intimidated and awkward when visiting sexual health clinics, especially as making appointments can be difficult and waiting times are long.

'There is an urgent need for more sexual health services designed and commissioned with, and directly addressing the needs of, young people,' the report states.

The publication of HIV Prevention with Young People: The Key to Tackling the Epidemic marks the launch of Unicef UK's We Want to Live Free from HIV campaign, which aims to raise £2m for HIV prevention and remind governments of the importance of effective awareness and prevention initiatives for young people.

For the full Unicef report visit www.unicef.org.uk

7th May 2009

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