UNICEF-supported programme cares for Cambodian children living with HIV
By Shantha Bloemen
SVAY RIENG PROVINCE, Cambodia, 14 July 2008 – On the veranda of their rural home, 12-year-old Vanna, his twin brother and an older sister race against the natural light to finish their homework. A clock perched between family photos chimes six times as the three orphans and their aunt make the most of the waning day.
At the chime’s reminder, the aunt brings a tray of medicine. Vanna takes the pills in what is for him another race: He is one of at least 6,000 Cambodian children living with HIV.
Vanna’s father died from an AIDS-related illness in 2000. After a year of sickness, his mother also died. It was only then that the children were checked for HIV, and it was only Vanna who tested positive.
‘Friends Helping Friends’
Six years later, Vanna’s life is not so different than that of his brothers. He still loves to ride his bike, goes to school and helps his siblings with household chores.
Crucial to this life of normalcy has been the UNICEF-supported ‘Friends Helping Friends’ support group at the provincial hospital. Designed especially for children living with HIV and their caregivers, Friends Helping Friends provides opportunities for children to connect with others in similar situations, talk about their lives, play, eat a nutritious lunch and get medical care.
Vanna and his aunt have made the monthly, 15 km journey to the hospital for the past two years.
Clinton Foundation provides medicines
“I enjoy being able to talk and play with other children, who, like me, also have to take medicine everyday,” Vanna says shyly.
With UNICEF funds, a large room in the hospital children’s ward was transformed by colourful animal murals, books and toys. One of UNICEF’s partners, the Clinton Foundation, provides the medicines that Vanna gets after his check-up each month.
UNICEF has played a strong role in supporting paediatric AIDS treatment, refurbishing hospitals and paediatric wards, and providing technical guidance and training related to HIV and AIDS in Cambodia.
Improving care, reducing stigma
“One issue for Cambodia is that many of the facilities are run down and old,” says UNICEF Cambodia’s Chief of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care, Haritiana Rakotomamonjy. “Some of the referral hospitals don’t even have space for keeping children. The refurbishment of the health facilities has helped revive care for all treatment, regardless of a child’s status.”
Cambodia dramatically reduced its rate of HIV infection from 3 per cent in 1997 to just under 1 per cent in 2006. An essential element of that success has been eliminating the social cost of coming forward to get treatment.
In the past, people infected with HIV were often shunned. But stigma and discrimination have been reduced through the expansion of testing facilities, treatment services and support networks such as Friends Helping Friends.
“Cambodia has demonstrated that even with limited resources, you can have a turnaround on such a complex communicable disease,” says UNICEF’s Regional Advisor on HIV/AIDS for East Asia and the Pacific, Wing-Sie Cheng. “Very good leadership and extremely good follow-up ensure that change happens on the ground at the district and provincial levels.”
But with almost half of new infections now among married women and a third of all new infections transmitted from mother to child, there is still a tough race ahead for Cambodia’s children at risk.