At Dignitas, we engage with adolescents living with HIV through our Teen Club in Malawi. Based on a model developed by the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative, our Teen Club fosters an environment where adolescents transitioning into adulthood can develop a deeper understanding of their unique health needs.
The clinic provides youth-friendly services under one roof. It offers a safe space for teens to receive their medications; learn about safer sex, reproductive health and life skills; and form supportive peer and mentor relationships. Each month, nearly 300 HIV+ teens come together to receive care and support. Here they are given a safe space to be themselves – to be teenagers. The poem below, which was recently submitted to the WHO “Adolescent’s Perspectives on Health” competition, reflects the experience of 19 year-old Chimwemwe, which has enabled him and other Teen Club members to retain their dignity and live positively with HIV.
Today, as a result of improved pediatric care, a generation of children born with HIV due to mother-to-child transmission is reaching adolescence. According to the 2013 UNAIDS Global Report, an estimated 2.1 million adolescents (10–19 years) are living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries. Persistent challenges to effective HIV treatment for adolescents include inadequate access to high-quality, youth-friendly HIV services, as well as sexual and reproductive health services. We recognize the need for specific programs designed to meet the needs of this vulnerable group.
Adolescents with HIV are particularly susceptible to stigma and discrimination, which deters them from seeking and adhering to treatment. They also have specific health challenges including chronic lung disease, stunted growth and delayed sexual development. To exacerbate this, teens face barriers in their interactions with the health system due to gaps between pediatric and adult care, as well as experiencing insensitive and judgmental attitudes from health providers.
A recent study of our Teen Club showed that adolescents participating in the program were three times less likely to stop HIV treatment than teens not enrolled in the program. The results indicate that a specialized clinic can improve treatment retention among these clients by creating a positive environment for peer interactions and psychosocial support.
Addressing treatment retention for adolescents living with HIV must become a priority for national HIV programs in developing countries. This past summer, our study was presented at the 2013 International AIDS Society conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and received praise at the Closing Session of the conference. Over the coming year, we will be expanding our Teen Club from Zomba into the other districts comprising Malawi’s South East Zone to reach hundreds more teens living with HIV.