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To the Organization of African Unity Summit on HIV/AIDS, TB and Other Infectious Diseases

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Abuja, Nigeria - 26 April 2001

President Obasanjo, Secretary-General Annan, OAU Secretary General Salim Salim, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Fellow Heads of UN Agencies, Friends:

Secretary-General Annan came to this Summit with a message of hope. It should reverberate from one end of the African continent to the other, and it is this: "Defeating HIV is possible". Together we can halt the epidemic, and together we can assure treatment and support for those touched it has touched.

Make no mistake - because of this disease, and the conspiracy of silence that has so long surrounded it, children are suffering and dying in numbers that no earlier generation could have imagined possible. 4.3 million children under 15 have already died. 600,000 infants are infected annually. More than 13 million have been orphaned, a number which will likely reach 40 million in the coming years. And the vast, vast majority of these children are African children.

For the sake of these children - our children - we must stop this pandemic now. The naysayers believe this can't happen - at least not any time soon. The challenges, they say, are too daunting.

I don't agree.

Let me take you back a couple of decades, when naysayers said another major public health initiative -- one that promised to save the lives of millions of children - couldn't possibly work.

Going to scale with immunisation against preventable disease, they claimed, was not possible. The logistics, the infrastructure, the money, the will - all simply were not there. But today we know that immunisation is one of the most successful public health campaigns ever - one that saves around three million lives annually.

Immunisation is much more than delivering vaccines to young children. It's about establishing national and global partnerships; mobilising leaderships and communities; building health systems. But the key thing about our immunisation experience was the strength and power we gained by having a common sense of vision and an ambitious measurable goal behind which we mobilised our hearts, minds and resources.

Mr. President, the global campaign against polio demonstrates - as powerfully as anything can - what can be accomplished when governments join with international organisations like WHO and UNICEF, with the pharmaceutical industry and business community, with non-governmental and civil society organisations like Rotary International, the UN Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It shows what can happen when leaders like President Obasanjo act to rally government and civil society, as he has done in the campaign against polio, and as he is now doing in responding to HIV/AIDS. It can be done!

The Secretary-General has described what we must do against HIV/AIDS, and UNICEF is committed to working in partnership with others to transforming these challenges into reality. For UNICEF, three of the aims of the Secretary General's Call to Action are paramount:

The first is to reduce HIV infection among young people. UNICEF's top priority remains the prevention of this dreadful disease and, to do so, we are committed to working to ensure that every young person - from the Cape to Cairo - has access to basic information on how to avoid infection, and to make sure they have it by 2005.

Only education can empower young people with the knowledge they need to protect themselves from infection. Only education can combat the discrimination that helps perpetuate the pandemic. And only education can help children and young people acquire the knowledge and develop the skills they need to build a better future - the better future that the international community promised every child a decade ago, at the World Summit for Children.

In the midst of disaster, education restores structure to young lives, trains the mind, rehabilitates the spirit - and offers life-sustaining hope to children facing futures that are, at best, uncertain. That is why UNICEF is challenging governments, local leaders, teachers and young people to help transform schools and education systems into hubs of activity and enterprise in the battle against HIV/AIDS - centred not only on reading and writing, but on preventing the spread of the disease while supporting those affected by it - and strengthening the communities where they live.

But this is not enough. In addition we must also ensure young people access to youth friendly health services which provide HIV testing and counselling, treat sexually transmitted diseases, and offer frank and unabashed information and services on how sexually active young people can protect themselves and their partners from infection.

Second, we are committed to expanding care and support for orphans and children made vulnerable by HIV. We need to scale-up our support so they do not grow up alone, but in family-like environments, with protection, love and care. In doing so we need to ensure that policies and legislation are set in place to - amongst other things - provide guidance on fostering and adoption, to protect the property and inheritance rights of women and children, and to stimulate and support the work of religious and non-governmental organisations in building family and community based responses.

We need to guarantee access for these children to essential social services, especially to health and to education. And, perhaps most importantly we need to expand our support for family and community based action to care for children.

And third, we must prevent mother-to-child transmission. This is a multi-faceted process that includes elements of both prevention and treatment. The first step is to prevent infection among girls and women of child-bearing age and to address the gender inequalities that are fuelling the epidemic. In addition, there is need to increase access to voluntary and confidential counselling and testing; to ensure access to anti-retroviral drugs to HIV positive pregnant women to reduce the risk of infecting their infants; and to provide them with advice and support on the care and feeding of their new-born infant. And, for those parents and infants living with HIV there is the need to rapidly expand access to treatment, care and psycho-social support.

Reducing mother to child transmission provides us with an opportunity for tackling the treatment agenda. In a recent essay I said our immunisation experience and some of the global mechanisms we have set up - to manage funding, procurement and the movement of vaccines to countries - could be applied to the challenge of expanding access to treatment.

I made this statement to help us move from rhetoric to action; to point out that we can draw on experience in other areas of public health; and to signal the need to strengthen our partnerships to assemble the capacity, resources and range of skills and resources needed. In that statement I offered my organisation to provide a critical component - a procurement system -- to help bring about this reality. I'm not suggesting that this is all that needs to be done. No, the challenges of strengthening health systems to ensure the proper use of these drugs, and the mobilising of family and community supports for people living with HIV and AIDS are very real. However, though challenging, these issues need to be addressed, and doing so is the work of national leaderships and the purpose of national strategic plans. Our job - the work of the UN and international community - is to work in solidarity with governments in doing so - and we in UNICEF are committed to doing this.

Mr. President, UNICEF is convinced that leadership and partnership - i.e. the mobilisation of a Global Movement for Children - are key to achieving all of this. But without significant additional resources, these commitments will remain as dreams. Presently we have a pitifully small amount of money dedicated to the combat of HIV/AIDS, and this is a major reason why people believe we cant do both prevention and treatment. But for Africa, with so many of us living with HIV, its not either/or, its both. The challenge is clear - to allocate more of what we have and to mobilise massive new support for this effort from richer countries and the corporate sector. To do this we support the establishment of a global fund and I am pushing, with my UN colleagues, to make sure that this is realised and made to work in getting resources to those that so desperately need them.

Let me conclude by reminding us all that our success in combating HIV/AIDS will be measured in the lives of our children. Are young people getting the information and support they need to protect themselves? Are girls being empowered to take charge of their lives? Are infants safe from infection? And are children orphaned by AIDS being raised in loving, supportive environments? These are the questions we need to address and these are the measures of the effectiveness of leadership and of our partnership.

But if we act together and boldly there is no choice, we will succeed.

Thank You.


 

 

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