Major anti-HIV/AIDS campaign to be launched

A major campaign aimed at providing young people with HIV/AIDS counselling and testing is to be launched in Ethiopia. The country has one of the largest populations living with HIV/AIDS in the world, according to statistics from the health ministry. About one million children have been orphaned by the virus.

Four main towns across the country where the rate of HIV/AIDS infection among the youth is almost one in six, or about 16 percent, are to be targeted. "Young people make up a third of Ethiopia’s population and are the most affected by HIV/AIDS," said Mirgissa Kaba, acting head of the HIV/AIDS section of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Providing youth-friendly, confidential counselling and testing is an essential part in the battle against HIV/AIDS. Young people themselves are important agents of change to combat the spread of this epidemic."

UNICEF, the National AIDS Council Secretariat (NACS) and the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia (FGAE) will mount the campaign. The three organisations signed an agreement on 10 May to provide 29,000 young people with voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) services in the capital, Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Gonder and Jijiga.

The project also provides for the diagnosis and treatment of an additional 96,000 people exposed to sexually transmitted and other opportunistic infections. Skills training will be made available to those who test HIV-positive.

According to UNICEF, people between the ages of 10 and 24 are susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which facilitate the transmission of HIV. A spokeswoman for the organisation said unmarried young people often encountered difficulties in accessing sexual and reproductive health services, including counselling and testing. Developing such services was a vital component of UNICEF's HIV/AIDS programme, she said.

Nigatu Mereke, head of the NACS, said he hoped to expand the programme beyond the towns. "UNICEF, as usual, is now leading us to an area which deserves our utmost attention – youth-friendly VCT. We are planning to expand the services beyond the four regions, and hope to learn a lot from this particular initiative. Providing VCT in centres where youth feel comfortable will empower youth and contribute to the fight," he said.

The UNICEF-assisted project is expected to reach at least one-third of the youth visiting FGAE centres for the treatment of STIs. The voluntary counselling and testing project will be coordinated by the NACS and implemented by the FGAE.

UNICEF is providing US $587,000 for the project from funds donated by the government of Norway. "The Norwegian government has been a consistently strong partner in supporting UNICEF’s work in Ethiopia," said Abdelmajid Tibouti, UNICEF Senior Programme Officer. "Their support will help the youth of Ethiopia combat the spread of HIV/AIDS."