Worrying trends of sexual assault in children causing HIV infections, unintended pregnancies

Girls who conceive risk transmitting HIV to unborn babies, as they do not know how to prevent mother-child transmission of the virus. [File, Standard]

Sexual assault in children is slowing Kenya’s efforts to end HIV infections by 2030, experts have warned.

A report by the National Syndemic Disease Control Council (NSDCC) has revealed that sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) in children is compounding the high risk of HIV transmission and unintended pregnancies.

Girls who conceive according to the report risk transmitting HIV to unborn babies, as they do not know how to prevent mother-child transmission of the virus.

NSDCC CEO Dr Ruth Laibon-Masha said there is therefore need to address triple threat- SGBV, early pregnancies and HIV transmission.

“If we do not see anything on numbers of sexual gender violence, it will be difficult to end the HIV epidemic,” said Dr Masha.

The official added, “The reporting (on sexual gender violence) is increasing, which is a good thing because we are witnessing areas where people were silent before can now report the cases. But our greatest worry is children who are sexually being violated and the adolescents, especially ages of 10 to 19 years.”

Data by NDSCC reveal that last year, at least 17 per cent of Antenatal Clinic (ANC) attendees were children aged between 10 and 19 years, representing a total of 254,753 pregnancies.

Out of the 254,753 cases, 13,239 were children aged 10 and 14 years.

Additionally, 23,456 adolescents and children aged between 10 and 17 years were sexually violated in 2023, out of which 3,403 were those aged zero and nine years.

At least 67,869 children aged between zero and 14 years are living with HIV.

In 2023, 4,474 children aged zero and 14 years were infected with the virus, out of a total of 22,154 new infections.

At least 62 new HIV infections occur every week in children aged 10 and 19 years.

Out of all pregnancies documented in the country, the report reveals 17 per cent are of children aged 10 and 19 years, whereas 37 per cent of all sexual gender-based violence cases occur in children of the same age bracket.

“To effectively reduce new HIV infections among women, our approach should centre on addressing the intertwined challenges of new HIV infections, unintended pregnancies, and sexual and gender-based violence among adolescents aged between 10 and 19,” added Masha.

Further, the CEO said despite the availability of treatment, and access to healthcare services, young people exhibit poor health-seeking behaviour.

Seeking an HIV test for example is likely to be more difficult among young people because most lack autonomy in accessing health services, coupled with inherent barriers in healthcare settings that limit young people from obtaining health services.

“First entry to care is that we usually give the girls who survive SGBV is post-exposure prophylaxis. However, we are concerned that their uptake is low. We only have 40 per cent of those who are sexually violated being able to report to health facilities within 72 hours. This is a major concern,” said the NSDCC boss.

She observed that continuous education on the need for health services among adolescents and young adults is also key.

Services she said should be moved to where people are.

“We need to meet people where they are,” she said.

While the debate on whether sex education should be considered, Masha said education will help adolescents understand why they should not engage in sex early, and also why the use of protection like condoms is encouraged.

“The issue here is not about the government providing condoms, but do citizens believe having unprotected sex is risky? Do they understand the outcome?” posed the CEO. “We have to bridge services, misleading information, myths.”

On her part, Prof Nelly Mugo, Director, of Research and Development Education at Kemri said it is worrying that exposing young girls risks them from acquiring HPV which causes cancer, and chlamydia.

Chlamydia he said is not much talked about, yet it is a disease that silently causes infertility.

“We are reporting the chlamydia pandemic. When we do our data, and we collect samples from a cohort, we find that at least 20 per cent of young women have chlamydia,” said the researcher.

In one of the studies done by Kemri, she said scientists started with girls who had never had sex, and after sex, chlamydia went up.

“Chlamydia causes infertility. A lot of sex in young people is unplanned, and they therefore do not use condoms.

There is a need for sexual education so that we normalise sex. How are we as a society preparing young about sex?” she posed.

HPV she said causes about 99 per cent of cervical cancer, reported at a tender age of 25 years.

The researcher pleaded with parents to take their children for HPV jab, to prevent cancer.

“My conversation with parents and guardians is that it is irresponsible to fail and get girls vaccinated. Cervical cancer is not a disease to wish to anybody. It bleeds and kills, and needs not to happen,” said Prof Mugo.

She added, “For younger women, please go for screening, we can prevent it in outpatient clinics”.

Further, Masha observed that keeping children in school is critical in addressing the triple threat.

Most girls who find themselves pregnant she said have lower education and knowledge of sex is lower.