UNICEF helps keep HIV-positive children alive
By Sarah Crowe
Chókwè, 3 November 2005 - Against a setting sun, beside a traditional thatched hut, a group of women are pounding maize. A typically beautiful African scene. But another all too familiar scene is unfolding too – the women of the extended family are gathering around because a young girl has just buried her mother.
Elsa Esmael Chaúque, aged 13, starts to talk about what happened, but she is too troubled to explain more than that her mother had been suffering for a long time with tuberculosis, her father died years ago. The extended family now has to work out what to do with Elsa and her seven-year-old brother.
Like Elsa and her brother, orphans are everywhere on this parched landscape – they’re often left with their grandmothers or left alone to fend for themselves; girls become women overnight, boys are thrust into early manhood.
With 500 new HIV infections every day, the toll from AIDS is threatening to derail Mozambique’s vibrant economic growth of almost nine percent. Now severe drought that has left 850,000 people in need of food aid and, coupled with growing HIV rates, could reverse significant gains made in the country.
Prevalence rates are still fairly low compared to surrounding countries - 16.2 % HIV positive. But AIDS killed 97,000 Mozambicans last year, 20,000 of whom were children under 5 years old.
‘The big change is the smile’
About 1.4 million of Mozambique's 19 million people aged between 15 and 49 years are estimated to be living with HIV or AIDS in 2004, according to Health Ministry data. This has led to a growing realization by government that it needs to procure more paediatric anti-retrovirals. But with nearly a million HIV-positive children under 15, the way ahead is to accelerate treatment.
At the UNICEF-supported paediatric unit in Maputo hospital is the beginning of hope -- a tiny fraction, just one percent, of Mozambican children eligible are on anti-retrovirals. Ten-year-old Kevin (his name has been changed to protect his identity) is one of the lucky few. His parents died of AIDS three years ago.
Adherence to drug regimes is high here and Dr Paula Vaz, the leading paediatrician at the hospital, says children like Kevin become very responsible: “He takes it twice- in the morning and in the evening. He does it by himself. He is very independent now and he’s very committed to the treatment. When he comes with grandma he’s the one who knows which medicine he needs to get. He’s really very responsible.”
The best part of Dr Vaz’s job is seeing how children like Kevin bounce back to life once they are on ARVs.
“The big change is in the smile. They are sad, they are weak and the next consultation after putting him on anti-retrovirals and give nutritional supplementation even though he didn’t put much on weight, there is a smile on the child’s face,” she explains.
The government is now looking to procure cheap generic drugs from India with the aim of putting more smiles on more young faces and giving them back their health.