Addressing rising HIV among Rwandan youths: Senate concerns and policy imperatives

By Esther Muhozi
On 3 April 2024 at 10:48

Senators expressed concern over the high number of youths aged between 19 and 24 contracting the HIV, a trend evident across all districts of the country. They emphasized that preventive measures against the disease should begin in schools, families, and any gatherings where people converge.

Data from Rwanda Biomedical Center, RBC, reveal a significant prevalence of new HIV infections among the youth, with at least 35% of new cases found in individuals aged between 15 and 21.

On April 2, 2024, members of the Senate’s Committee on Social Affairs Human Rights informed the General Assembly that the HIV epidemic among youths aged 19 to 24 across 14 visited districts is concerning.

The committee’s chairperson Umuhire Adrie stated, "We found that HIV is indeed increasing among the youth. Discussions with various sectors revealed that perhaps due to successful treatment efforts and the provision of free medication, the youth, particularly those between 19 and 24, are seeing a rise in new infections."

She highlighted that a youth center established to offer advice and condoms operates only once a week, serving a very limited number of individuals in need.

"The youth center exists, but it’s not open every day. We’ve pointed out the limited capacity of these health facilities where, even though available, they operate just once a week because if not, the room is used for other purposes."

"The doctor providing these lessons isn’t solely dedicated to this task; they also serve in other capacities. While the policy behind the youth center is commendable, the content, method, and frequency of the education, and the number of youths it can actually help, are inadequate compared to the need."

Senator Uwera Pelagie expressed concerns over the availability of medications and preventive materials for the youth.

"Are there enough supplies considering our only methods are condoms and abstinence? So that at least those up to 21 years old who need them can access them as desired? And I believe more awareness campaigns are necessary to further encourage youths to opt for these prevention methods."

Umuhire clarified that the youth center is fully equipped with condoms and post-exposure prophylaxis pills for unprotected sexual encounters with suspected HIV-positive partners.

Senator Nsengiyumva Fulgence noted that while these centers are underutilized, placing them in schools could yield better outcomes.

"This reproductive health and HIV prevention center, if placed within schools, could address the issue more effectively. It’s true that not everyone attends school, but in the long term, ensuring all children attend school could integrate these lessons from primary to university levels."

A national survey on health and living conditions shows that 4.5% of girls and 10.1% of boys had engaged in sexual activities before the age of 15, with some having children before reaching this age.

Vice President of the Senate Nyirasafari Esperance remarked that people are beginning to view HIV as less of a concern than other diseases, given its reduced fatality rate.

"While it may not be as deadly, the medication comes with its own set of challenges and costs, which could be allocated to other important needs. And those on treatment have limitations on what they can do."

She argued for the youth counseling center on reproductive health and HIV prevention to operate daily, advocating for a multi-faceted approach to combatting the disease.

"I support incorporating these topics into school curriculums, even if we can’t establish a specific center like we did for girls, at least dedicating known times for discussions on reproductive health to ensure children are well-informed."

The senators also suggested that the Rwandan family should proactively discuss HIV/AIDS with their children, rather than leaving them to learn from the media or potentially misleading sources.

Currently, the Rwandan government aims by 2030 for 95% of its citizens to have been tested for HIV, 95% of those on medication to adhere to their treatment, and for 95% to achieve viral load suppression.

The members of the Commission who visited youth centers and hospitals have expressed concerns about the alarming rate of HIV infections among the youth.