Cameroon is one of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa still struggling with an HIV prevalence above 5%. Over 540 000 out of the estimated 18,900 000 people of Cameroon live with HIV and the youths lead almost two third of these numbers.
The first case of AIDS in Cameroon was diagnosed in 1985. By late 2003, UNAIDS reported that 4.8% of the population was infected by the virus. This number rose to 5.5% in 2004, creating an alarm which deployed the Cameroon Government, Civil Society Organizations and International bodies to step up policies and actions against HIV/AIDS. Four year after, the country witnessed a drop by 0.4%, (UNAIDS 2008).
Over 3900 000 are estimated to have died of AIDS in Cameroon with the greatest number of death recorded amongst the youthful population.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers Cameroonian sex workers, truck drivers, mobile populations and military personnel to be the professional groups most likely to contract HIV. Sex wise, women, especially those between the ages 15 to 24, are three times infected than their male counterparts. Cameroon is divided into 10 regions and the HIV prevalence varies per region with the North West Region topping the charts with a prevalence of 8.7% (Demographic and Health survey 2004).
Women (15-49years) account for 300 000 of the 540 000 living with HIV giving an outnumbered ratio of 3:2 when compared to men. This ratio is much similar to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, meaning women’s vulnerability to HIV here is a regional issue. However, pertinent socio-ecomomic factors such as polygamy, prostitution and gender violence greatly account for the faster spread of the virus among women in Cameroon.
Even though women are generally more infected, young women(15-24) are at a critical position. The DHS 2004 states that, girls aged 15 -19 and 20-24 are the most infected by HIV and are 3 times more than boys of the same age groups (2.2% and 7.9% for girls as against 0.6% and 2.5% for boys respectively). Because the primary means of HIV transmission in Cameroon is heterosexual intercourse, women are particularly at risk along with youths who engage in risky sexual practices. This vulnerability within the youthful population can also be attributed to inadequate sex education at many levels. For instance, Many youths misunderstand the nature of HIV transmission. UNICEF reports that, among youths (15-24 years) only 63% of males and 57% of females know that a healthy looking person can have HIV. Only 16% of females youths (15-24 years) reject local misconception about HIV transmission, identify condoms and monogamy as methods to prevent HIV transmission, and know that a healthy looking person can have HIV.
The fact that girls between 15 and 24 years are more infected that their peers of the opposite sex is a clear indication that they don’t only contract this virus from their peers. A study carried out by GTZ/ACMS in 2005 proves that 45% of female students in Cameroon have sexual relationships. Out of the 45%, 35% have sexual relationships with sugar Daddies (older men). The entire sexual risk with sugar daddies is to meet up with economic needs. It should be noted that, more than 42% of Cameroonians live below poverty line and youth unemployment stands at 13%.
The Cameroon Government and her international partners have developed a National plan to help improve the HIV/AIDS response in Cameroon especially among youths. The National AIDS Control Committee was created in 2001 and since then, has been decentralized to the grassroots to increase access to information on HIV/AIDS. Every region in the country has at least an AIDS Treatment Center which offers counseling,testing and treatment services as well as community relay. District hospitals also render HIV services at the sub-urban and rural area but not to the extend of conducting CD4 counts. Prevention information is gradually being integrated into primary and secondary school programmes following a commitment signed by countries of Economic Community of Central African States (CEMAC). Civil Society Organizations (SCO) such as ACMS, IRESCO, CAMNAFAW and Chantal Biya Foundation also put young people (15-24) at the center of primary prevention by organizing annual campaigns such as ‘Holidays free of HIV’ and publishing monthly magazines such a the ‘100% Jeune’ and ‘Among Youths’ which promotes prevention education. The male condom has been available for decades and in 2009, ACMS in partnership with the Cameroon Government lunched the Universal Access to Female Condom (UAFC) project. Peer educators of all age groups above 18 years are allover the national territory to promote the female condom as a measure to curb the spread of HIV especially among young women.
Generally, youths can access HIV/AIDS services without restrictions or discrimination. However, stigma on people living with HIV (PLWHIV), sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM) discourages some youths from benefiting from the available HIV resources. Most SCOs have expressed concern about these and believes that, if the rights of MSM and sex workers are liberated, they will access HIV prevention, care and support freely and the national prevalence will drastically drop.