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In Guinea Bissau, the United Nation's Children's Fund is working with youth groups to fight the spread of the virus that causes AIDS.
With nearly eight percent of pregnant women in the capital testing HIV positive, preventing mother-to-child transmission is especially important. Yet the United Nation's children's fund says only one percent of those HIV positive mothers-to-be has access to drugs that would prevent transmission to their newborn.
Silvia Luciani coordinates UNICEF programs in Guinea Bissau. She says educating people about how to prevent the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS is crucial in a country where only about 16 percent of young people say they know how to protect themselves. "Prevention of HIV among young people is of critical importance in this country where a large part of the population is young, and where sexual relations start very early and they are not protected. So in many, many cases young people engage in sexual relations without even knowing what are the prevention measures," she said.
Luciani says UNICEF is working closely with a number of youth groups in Guinea Bissau because those organizations are often more effective at getting the message out to young people who might ignore more traditional public health campaigns. "They are very active and very interested to do something for themselves and for the fellow young people. I think that the main problem we have to deal with in Guinea Bissau is the wide-spread poverty," she said.
Guinea Bissau has Africa's second lowest rating on the U.N.'s Human Development Index measuring life expectancy, education, and standards of living. Life expectancy in Guinea Bissau is 47.
Last month's murder of both the president and the army chief of staff has heightened the country's political uncertainty at a time when Luciani says the government must move quickly to protect a generation exposed to AIDS. "The government needs to be much more engaged in ensuring that all of the young people have access to the information, the skills, and the services to prevent HIV. This is a major challenge for this country. But it is a challenge that needs to be addressed immediately before it is too late," she said.
Luciani says increasing poverty means more and more girls are drawn into prostitution, exploited by men for as little as one U.S. dollar in a country without adequate mechanisms for child protection. "We are working to establish a network and a system of protection of children and also to try to report cases of abuse and exploitation and try to save these children, put them in transit centers, try to recontact the family, and put them back with the family or with the extend family when the parents are not there or are not suitable to take care of the children," she said.
UNICEF is working with Guinea Bissau's Ministry of Women and Family to better protect young girls at risk and increase the supply of drugs that prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV while expanding the availability of those drugs outside the capital.