Youth under the age of 30 constitute 78 % or more than three quarters of Uganda's population (Youth Map Uganda 2011). With majority of the country's productive population in this sexually active age group, HIV prevention programmes should pay special attention to them to prevent devastating effects the disease can have on the country.
The National HIV Prevention Strategy (NPS) 2011-2015 indicates that sexual behaviour continues to be at the root of HIV transmission in Uganda. As Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate World AIDS Day, emphasis should be put on influencing the youth to adopt positive behaviours that reduce their risk to HIV/AIDS.
Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) aims at supporting an individual to adopt and maintain a positive behaviour and the NPS 2011-2015 highlights BCC programmes as key in reducing HIV infection.
Results of the 2011 Uganda AIDS Indicator survey show that 3.7% of women and men aged 15-24 years are HIV positive. As we move towards "Getting to zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related deaths," by 2015, let's borrow ideas from some programmes that have greatly impacted youth.
Initiatives involving the use of BCC to curb the high HIV/AIDS prevalence in Uganda (7.3%) have had positive impact. A case in point is Young Empowered And Healthy (Y.E.A.H), an initiative of the Uganda AIDS Commission (UAC) for and by young people, 15-24 year olds.
The initiative, which was implemented by Communication for Development Foundation Uganda (CDFU) from 2004 to 2012 on behalf of UAC, utilised multi-channel social and behaviour change communication campaigns for youth in Uganda, with the aim of reducing new HIV infections, early pregnancies and early school leaving.
Statistics from the eight year project which ended in April 2012 have shown that Y.E.A.H's centre piece, Rock Point 256, a 30 minute weekly radio serial drama broadcast on 16 radio stations across the country involved characters who modelled positive behaviours that influenced the sexual and reproductive health attitudes, knowledge, intentions and practices of the youth over time.
According to Ipsos Synovate, a research and media monitoring firm, over six million youth listen to Rock Point 256. The radio drama is designed to get people talking about different behaviours that put the youth at risk of HIV/AIDS.
Some of these include "something for something love", what it means to be a man, HIV, alcohol abuse, violence against women, family planning, and communication between adults and young people.
The campaigns under the Y.E.A.H initiative have engaged the public and generated debates through commentaries, letters and listeners calling in at radio stations.
Youth sexual behaviour is one of the catalysts of the rising HIV prevalence.
Many youth love experimenting with sex, alcohol and drugs, behaviours that put them at risk of HIV. They also lack basic information about HIV.
Avail ing them with necessary information through different fora such as radio programmes with role models, community outreaches as well as Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials will enable them make more informed decisions. This will also allay the misconceptions about HIV among youth.
Parents/guardians too can make a difference by offering the necessary guidance to protect the youth from behaviours that expose them to HIV. They can encourage the youth to stay in school until when they are ready to start marriage. In addition, they should offer financial and moral support to prevent them from engaging in transactional sex.
While abstinence is important, information to the youth should go beyond preaching this. It should be aimed at delaying sexual debut, avoiding unsafe, cross generation or transactional sex and avoiding multiple or concurrent partners.
Making such IEC programmes part of the school curriculum or community initiatives aimed at fighting HIV will go a long way in reducing HIV/AIDS prevalence among this vulnerable, yet productive group of our population.
The writer is a MakSPH-CDC Fellow at CDFU