Helping HIV/AIDS children

As a child, Poel wondered why she fell sick so often, why she was always breaking out in lesions, why she constantly felt tired. The answer seems obvious now - her parents died of HIV/AIDS when she was very young. But the aunt who looked after her never sent her for tests and her status was only discovered when she was admitted to hospital with tuberculosis at 11.

"They gave me medicine," Poel, who lives in Khon Kaen Province in northeast Thailand, and is now 18, told IRIN. "But the pills were very big and hard to swallow. They were made for adults. They should think about the children."

Thailand has long been held up as a shining example of how good policies can help stem the spread of HIV. However, it has overlooked the special needs of children such as Poel.

"Just providing ARVs [antiretroviral drugs] is not enough," says Scott Barber, chief of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) HIV section in Bangkok. "They are only effective if children take them and this depends on social support and the reduction of stigma and discrimination.”

In a recent report, UNICEF estimates that across East Asia and the Pacific, some 50,000 children under the age of 15 are affected by HIV or AIDS. About 10,000 received ARVs in 2006 - a 40 percent jump on 2005.

In addition, more countries have national programmes to prevent mothers from passing HIV to their babies and more emphasis is being placed on helping infected children.

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Mixed success

In Thailand, parent-to-child transmissions have dropped considerably in recent years, with 80 percent of expectant women receiving ARVs. UNICEF said Fiji and Malaysia have reported similar numbers. But in other developing Asia Pacific nations, fewer than 30 percent of expectant mothers are treated.

Thailand's success is attributed to an aggressive top-down approach. The campaign against HIV/AIDS was instituted more than two decades ago and included a massive public information exercise, efforts to enforce the use of condoms in all commercial sex establishments and, in 2003, a commitment by the government to provide universal ARVs. At least 600,000 people are infected with HIV or AIDS and at least one Thai child is born with the virus every day.

In 2007, Thailand joined its ASEAN neighbours in endorsing a call, made at the 2006 Hanoi Regional Consultation on Children and AIDS, to put children at the centre of the fight against HIV.

Small steps

"For children, small things can make a big difference," says Chutima Salsaengjan, a social worker from the We Understand Group, a Thai NGO that runs art and drama projects for children living with HIV. "It's important to treat the illness, but also important to help the children cope."

For Poel, being diagnosed HIV-positive brought shame and loneliness. "When the people in my village found out, they started to ostracise me," she told IRIN.

Poel said she spent most of her early teens locked up in her bedroom, too afraid to face the world. She hated taking her medicine and going for regular blood tests. It was only when she began participating in art and drama workshops organised by the We Understand Group that her life started turning around. She said she was encouraged to express herself, share her fears and seek support from other children affected by HIV.

The experience inspired her to go back to school and more recently she started mentoring younger members of the art and drama workshops and other HIV-infected youth.

"I like to help people,' she says, admitting that in the process she is also helping herself.

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