Geneva / New York, 30 May 2003 – UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy challenged leaders from the world’s richest nations meeting at the G8 summit next week to summon the collective leadership, resources and political will needed for a “tide-turning approach” to the global AIDS crisis. She said they would otherwise be held accountable for allowing millions more people – increasingly children and young people – to needlessly suffer and die under their watch.
Heads of government from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union meet on 1-3 June in the French Alps. They will tackle issues such as African development, terrorism, non proliferation, and the global economy. But the signing on Tuesday of the US White House’s $15 billion emergency AIDS bill raises the ante for other major donor nations.
“The $15 billion could have huge impact for the 14 African and Caribbean nations it is meant to reach,” Bellamy said. “But the overwhelming majority of all people living with HIV or AIDS today – 95 per cent of them - have absolutely no access to treatment or care. For them, HIV is a death sentence.”
“And in three countries not covered under the White House plan – Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, a third of all young women between the ages of 15 and 24 are HIV-positive,” Bellamy added. “To corner the virus, all countries – rich and poor –must step up to the plate. And the global response must focus on children and young people – because they’re hardest hit, and because their choices will determine the course of the epidemic.”
Prevalence rates are lowest among children between 5 and 14 years of age, Bellamy said. Because the spread of HIV depends mostly on the decisions that successive waves of children make as they reach adolescence and throughout their lives, the global response needs to ensure that they are fully equipped with the wherewithal to make the healthy, informed decisions that don’t allow for infection. “Young people are at greatest risk, but they also offer our greatest hope for reining in the epidemic,” Bellamy said.
“To prevent infection, their decisions need to be grounded on sound information, and the ability to translate this knowledge into safe and healthy choices. This can only happen if young people have ‘life skills’, meaning the ability to handle real life situations, especially those involving behavioural choices related to relationships, sex and drugs. The greatest gains will occur where young people have access to youth-friendly, gender-sensitive health services, and a protective and supportive legal, social and familial environment,” Bellamy added. “This won’t only affect prevalence rates among young people – it’ll also slow the rate of transmission between parents and infants.”
Everyday, Bellamy said, almost half the people newly infected with HIV are between 15 and 24 years old – six thousand new infections each day, or about four a minute. Young girls are hardest hit: in sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of newly-infected 15- to 19-year-olds are female. In the most affected countries, the ratio is five or six girls aged 15 to 19 for every boy infected in that age group.
But in areas where the spread of HIV/AIDS is declining, it is primarily because young men and women are being given the tools and the incentives to prevent infection in the first place, Bellamy emphasized. “We’ve seen remarkable progress among groups of young people in countries like Uganda, Zambia, Cambodia and Brazil, among others.”
UNICEF said that schools are the most effective tool for curbing infection. “Education can empower young people – especially girls – with a strong foundation of knowledge, skills and confidence needed to protect themselves and their communities. Education can chip away at the fear, stigma and discrimination that keep young people from seeking voluntary counselling, testing and treatment. And only education can give young people the economic and social capabilities to thrive in a more equal world,” Bellamy said.
That is why UNICEF is challenging governments, local leaders, teachers and young people to help transform schools and education systems into hubs of resources 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.
Bellamy noted that the international community is in agreement about what needs to be done to curb HIV, and has even developed a “road map” with time bound goals and strategies set out in consensus documents signed by the majority of the world’s countries. The Declaration of Commitment, the World Fit for Children Outcome Document, and the Millennium Development Goals commit governments to actions towards meeting the challenge of stopping, or reversing the spread of HIV by 2015.
But money and action are urgently needed, Bellamy stressed – at least $15 billion per year, according to UN estimates. “In just over 20 years, the epidemic has lopped off half a century of development gains in some countries. Many communities are so stretched they can’t care for the millions of children who’ve been orphaned or made extremely vulnerable by AIDS, much less protect them from the risk of infection,” Bellamy said.
“HIV is central to the achievement of almost all development goals. Reneging on promises, diverting funds, or holding back desperately needed resources, will mean massive failure not only with respect to HIV/AIDS, but across our whole development agenda,” Bellamy said. ”We nurture the threats of the future through inaction today. The course of HIV/AIDS and its links to human security will depend on whether we protect the world’s children and young people from the epidemic and its impact.”
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