As a child in Cameroon, Mani Djelassem never knew why she was constantly falling ill. It was only after her mother died that her father told her: she was born with HIV.
"I was very sad when I learned," she said. "I didn’t know what to do. I used to lock myself in the house."
When she ventured outside, she said, "people were telling me nasty things."
Now 17, Mani says she is no longer ashamed -- and in light of alarming new statistics on adolescent AIDS rates in Africa, she feels she has to speak out.
A new report from UN agencies found that AIDS is now the leading cause of death for Africa’s teenagers -- a stark statistic that AIDS experts say is a huge setback in the fight against the virus. That adds up to a trebling of adolescent HIV deaths worldwide since 2000.
The report says that half of the world’s HIV-positive teens between the ages of 15 and 19 live in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and India. And that only 1 in 3 of the 2.6 million children under the age of 15 living with HIV are on treatment.
The UN presented this and other disturbing data this week in Johannesburg as part of their global statistical update on AIDS among children. The study also found that globally, less than half of infants are tested for HIV.
Dr. Pierre Somse, deputy regional director of the UNAIDS regional support team for Eastern and Southern Africa, said the data on teenagers is a huge setback in the fight against the virus.
"The face of our failure are children and adolescents," Somse said. "These are the face of our failure. So today, given this reality, we are at the intersection of time.
"We are at the intersection of achievement, we have done well, we are at the intersection of opportunities, so we have seen all this new innovation, we have seen all this progress made in treatment. But we are also at the intersection of challenges, serious challenges," he said.
The report also found some encouraging news, such as a 41 percent drop in new infections in Africa since the year 2000 and 34 percent fewer AIDS-related deaths in that 15-year time span. They also reported global success in preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus.
Social aspects of disease
Somse praised scientific advances in treating the virus, but he says the social aspects of the epidemic have not been given enough attention. And with just 15 years left to achieve the mighty goal of eradicating AIDS by 2030, he says it’s time for society to play a greater role in the fight.
Craig McClure, UNICEF’s associate director and chief of HIV and AIDS, says most teens who die have simply slipped through the cracks -- a fact that shows a fatal, and utterly preventable, flaw in governments’ and aid agencies’ treatment plans.
"Most of the AIDS-related adolescent deaths are among those that were born with HIV and received no diagnosis or no treatment -- or, children who were diagnosed, were on pediatric treatment, but when they enter that difficult period of adolescence where routine is so difficult, somehow slipped out of care in the transition from pediatric to adolescent programming, became sick, and died," he said.
Mani encouraged her peers to stop buying into the stigma around AIDS.
"I was infected at birth," she said. "What was my fault in this? Is it something I should be ashamed of? … Don’t I deserve a normal life, like any other teenager?"