AN ADOLESCENT Aids epidemic is likely to afflict 40 per cent of Kenyan teenagers within five years, according to American medical researchers in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
At highest risk are sexually-active schoolgirls who have not had any sex education.
Tony Johnston, team leader of the group from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, says the epidemic began in western Kenya where 35 per cent of teenage girls are infected.
"Now the epidemic has begun to spread into Central and Rift Valley provinces and there is bountiful evidence for a nationwide epidemic," says Johnston. The rapid spread of the virus is being blamed on the large numbers of Kenyan teenagers who engage in unprotected sex at an early age.
According to Pathfinder International, a primary health care and humanitarian organisation that jointly funded the study, more than 90 per cent of Kenyan teenagers are sexually active by the age of 18. Aside from the danger of Aids, this puts six million unmarried girls at risk of early motherhood.
"Nearly 45 per cent of Knyan girls aged 19 are already mothers or are pregnant," says Alan Ferguson, one of the researchers. He said that 70 per cent of schoolgirls in western Kenya dropped out of education as a result of contracting Aids or getting pregnant.
Pathfinder officials in Nairobi said the situation was frightening because few teenagers knew that they were infected.
"Within the next five years or so, many of them will marry and, as a consequence, infection rates will rise among families," says Tony Johnston.
Inevitably, the number of Aids-infected babies will rise. So far, an estimated 800,000 children and adolescents have lost one or both parents to Aids. This is expected to rise to 1.5m in five years.
To counter the spread of the epidemic, Pathfinder is campaigning for sex education in schools.
Presenting their findings to the ministry of education, the researchers said a full-scale Aids epidemic among young people is likely to erase the education gains made in the past 30 years, within five years.
Aids is also claiming the lives of 2,000 Kenyan teachers a year, according to United Nations' figures released last summer.