UN agencies launch pro-child HIV/AIDS drive

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), UNAIDS and other partners launched on Monday a global campaign to spur action for the millions of children affected by HIV/AIDS.

"Millions of children are missing parents, siblings, schooling, health care, basic protection and many of the other fundamentals of childhood because of the toll the disease is taking," UNICEF and UNAIDS said in a statement issued in New York.

Saying that the campaign focuses on the enormous impact of HIV/AIDS on children, the agencies said it was a disgrace that fewer than 5 percent of HIV-positive children receive treatment and millions others who have lost parents to the disease go without support.

UNICEF said children affected by the disease were the "missing face" of AIDS - missing not only from global and national policy discussions on HIV/AIDS, but also lacking access to even the most basic care and prevention services.

The UN with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman and UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot launched the global campaign known as "Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS".

The UN officials said that every minute, a child dies of an AIDS-related illness; a child becomes infected with HIV; and four young people aged 15-24 become infected with HIV.

In addition, they said, some 15 million children had lost at least one parent to AIDS, yet less than 10 percent of children orphaned and made vulnerable by the disease receive public support or services.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where the impact is greatest, coping systems are stretched to the limit, they said.

"Nearly 25 years into the pandemic, help is reaching less than 10 percent of the children affected by HIV/AIDS, leaving too many children to grow up alone, grow up too fast or not grow up at all," Annan was quoted as saying. "Simply put, AIDS is wreaking havoc on childhood."

Veneman said in some of the hardest-hit countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the AIDS pandemic was "unravelling years of progress for children." She said concrete measures to reduce the impact of AIDS on children would be essential to meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

"In the past quarter-century, HIV/AIDS has claimed the lives of more than 20 million people and lowered average life expectancy in the hardest-hit countries by as much as 30 years," Veneman said. "A whole generation has never known a world free of HIV and AIDS, yet the magnitude of the problem dwarfs the scale of the response so far."

The agencies said national leaders participating in events to launch the campaign around the world include the presidents of India, El Salvador, Brazil, Mozambique and Djibouti; the prime ministers of the Netherlands, Ireland, and Trinidad and Tobago; and the foreign minister of Australia.

According to UNICEF and UNAIDS, the campaign aims to achieve "measurable progress" for children based on internationally agreed goals in four key result areas: Prevention of mother-to-child transmission; paediatric treatment; prevention; as well as protection and support of children affected by AIDS

Regarding prevention of mother-to-child-transmission, UNICEF and UNAIDS said the vast majority of the 500,000 children under the age of 15 who die from AIDS-related illnesses every year contract HIV through mother-to-child transmission. The campaign, they said, aimed by 2010 to provide 80 percent of women in need with access to services to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies. Currently less than 10 percent of women have access to these services.

Under paediatric treatment, UNICEF and UNAIDS said less than 5 percent of HIV-positive children in need of AIDS treatment were receiving it, and only 1 percent of children born to HIV-infected mothers had access to cotrimoxazole, a low-cost antibiotic that can nearly halve child deaths from AIDS by fighting off deadly infections. The campaign aims by 2010 to provide antiretroviral treatment and/or cotrimoxazole to 80 percent of children in need.

As for prevention, the agencies said adolescents and young people aged 15-24 years accounted for roughly half of all new HIV infections, but the vast majority of young people had no access to the information, skills and services needed to protect themselves from HIV. The campaign aims by 2010 to reduce the percentage of young people living with HIV by 25 percent.

Regarding protection and support of children affected by AIDS, the agencies said by 2010, it was estimated that there would be 18 million children who will have lost at least one parent to AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

"Well before parents die, children - especially girls - have to take on adult tasks such as caring for the sick, looking after younger siblings, generating income to pay for health costs, or producing food," UNICEF and UNAIDS said. "Often they must drop out of school."

The campaign aims by 2010 to reach 80 percent of children most in need of public support and services.

UNICEF said children must be at the forefront of the fight against AIDS. According to UNAIDS, $55 billion would be needed over the next three years, $22 billion in 2008 alone, to confront the AIDS pandemic.

UNAIDS said there was currently a funding gap of at least $18 billion from 2005-2007. "Not only does AIDS funding need to increase dramatically, but a significant portion should be specifically targeted for children affected by the disease," it added.

The two agencies welcomed the commitment of a number of governments to prioritise children affected by HIV/AIDS by allocating funding to children.

"AIDS continues to tear apart families and communities, leaving behind 15 million orphans and robbing countries of their future," UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said. "If countries are to develop, we must put children first. Children must, therefore, be a major priority when it comes to the way we allocate and use resources."