Rising to the Challenge of an HIV-free Future

By Ashlee George

April 7, 2016

I have never lived in a world without AIDS. I was born in 1981, the same year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first reported unusual pneumonia cases in Los Angeles. Since then, more than 78 million people have been infected globally and more than 39 million have died from AIDS. It’s devastating to think about what those numbers really mean. If we compare these numbers to U.S. Census Bureau data, it would be as though everyone in California, New York and Florida had been infected and every single person in the state of California died over a 35-year period.

Today, we know that HIV is 100% preventable, and yet, about 5,600 people are infected every day—that’s 2 million new infections per year. We’ve certainly made progress. Treatment is extremely effective and we are reaching more individuals than ever before. Mother to child transmission has not just declined, but could potentially be completely eliminated.  Experts say we are at a crossroads—the pivotal moment in time to either put the pedal to the floor now and stop AIDS, or risk the virus continuing to destroy the lives of families and communities, and actually intensifying in strength.

Despite the scary possibilities, we have an incredible opportunity before us. And it’s one we can’t afford to miss. As a mother, what’s most exciting to me is that we have the chance to build a healthier world and a more just world for our children. A world where the place you’re born doesn’t fully determine your ability to have access to healthcare, education and the tools to stay HIV-free.

As a mother, what’s exciting to me is that we have the chance to build a healthier, more just world for our children.

To do this, we must focus on the populations that are falling through the cracks—the most critical of which is adolescents. Most people aren’t aware of this, but AIDS is the #2 cause of death globally for adolescents. In Sub–Saharan Africa it is the #1 cause of death. In every other age group, AIDS-related deaths have declined since 2005, but not for 10-19 year olds. It’s because HIV is not simple, and as many parents know, neither are teenagers. What drives the spread of the virus is complicated and complex—gender inequality, poverty, unemployment, rape, lack of quality education, stigma and discrimination. On top of that, add the normal challenges of being a teenager, and it’s easy to understand this group’s distinct vulnerability.

At the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP) we are committed to investing in young people to help them keep themselves safe from HIV.  The key is investment. There is no silver bullet. Prevention is not just comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education. It’s not just having access to health services. It’s not just being empowered enough to stand up for your rights and your body. These matter, but aren’t effective on their own. True prevention will come through the investment in a young person as an individual and in his or her community as a whole.

Here’s an example. We constantly hear from young people in South Africa an array of different challenges. They say they can’t visit their local health clinic because it’s only open during school hours, or the nurses are all people they know—so how can they possibly go ask for information on sexual health? They say they’ve been turned away, told they were “too young” to even be thinking about having a relationship or sex. How can young people be empowered to keep themselves safe if they don’t have the tools or the community support to do so?

It’s a big challenge to support teens through some of the most difficult developmental years of their lives. CTAOP and others like us believe that supporting groups on the ground who are working to address the many facets of HIV prevention among adolescents will help end AIDS. We must do more. We must urge policy makers and leaders to continue to drive resources to this vital group. And we must do it with a sense of urgency. Parents rise to take on that challenge without hesitation everyday, and we, as a global community should do the same.

To learn more and help invest in young people to get the support they need to stay healthy, visit www.charlizeafricaoutreach.org

Lead photo of actress Charlize Theron visiting Madwaleni school on the North Coast of Natal, South Africa on July 8 2010. Photo courtesy of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project

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