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Youth health care in focus

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A doctor offers antiretroviral drugs to a young woman who is living with HIV at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship hospital in Phnom Penh in 2012. AFP

Youth health care in focus

A set of new global standards for adolescent health care released by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS this week indicate that a worldwide gap in health care provision for youths is magnified by Cambodia’s comparatively young population, officials and experts said yesterday.

The guidelines are part of the WHO’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health 2016-2030, and recognise the unique disadvantages faced by adolescents due to a lack of accurate, age-appropriate services.

Cambodia has the youngest population in Southeast Asia, with over 30 per cent of people between 15 and 30 years old, making the WHO’s concerns especially applicable. In particular, local health care specialists emphasise risks associated with reproductive health and HIV/AIDS, which the latest data indicates is the second leading cause of death among 10-19 year olds worldwide.

“Since Cambodia has a very young population, the needs of the infected and at-risk population are changing,” said UNAIDS country coordinator Marie-Odile Emond, who noted that while overall rates of HIV are not increasing, groups vulnerable to infection through intravenous drug use and male-to-male transmission are disproportionately young.

At the same time, this demographic is often the worst equipped to seek health care for themselves due to cultural constraints on education or laws requiring parental authorisation to access treatment.

“We are now targeting adolescents entering sexual and reproductive phases, and the guidelines are based on how best we can equip and protect them with knowledge,” Emond said.

The challenges identified in the new standards are echoed by others working on adolescent health around the country.

“Sexual and reproductive health is one of the biggest problems facing youth, especially in the provinces,” said Sok Socheap, of the Khmer Youth Association, which runs a sexual health program with adolescents in two provinces.

“Around 30 per cent of young people have no understanding of basic issues like menstruation, sexually-transmitted infections and contraception, despite being sexually active.”

Many young people are reliant on their families and communities for – often inaccurate – information, and access is further restricted by the cost.

Representatives from the Ministry of Health could not be reached for comment.

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