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East Asia and the Pacific

Children ‘missing’ from HIV/AIDS response, regional meeting in Viet Nam told

© UNICEF EAPRO/2006/Nguyen
Youth delegates at a workshop in Hanoi plan ways to bring children to the forefront of discussions at the East Asia and the Pacific Consultation on Children and HIV/AIDS.

By Jennifer Chen

HANOI, Viet Nam, 22 March 2006 – Children and young people can play a crucial role in curbing the AIDS pandemic in East Asia and the Pacific, but they are still missing from efforts to prevent the disease, international health officials said today at the start of a regional conference on HIV/AIDS and children.

“According to UNAIDS, HIV is spreading fast in this region – faster in East Asia than anywhere else in the world. This region is at a crossroads and for any successful response, children and young people must be at the forefront,” said UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Regional Director, Anupama Rao Singh, at the opening of the first-ever East Asia and the Pacific Consultation on Children and HIV/AIDS.

Prevention campaigns

More than 200 delegates – including government officials, activists and children from across the region – are gathered in Hanoi, Viet Nam, for the three-day meeting to discuss ways to help children affected by HIV and AIDS and stem the rising tide of infections among children and young people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Representative in Viet Nam, Hans Troedsson, said that despite successes in the fight against AIDS, children’s needs were being ignored. “We seem to be leaving some people behind. If there were some tendency that we leave the children behind in these global efforts, that would not only be unfortunate, it would be unacceptable."

Health officials highlighted the importance of teaching children about prevention, citing surveys that reveal an alarmingly high number of young people in the region who do not know how to protect themselves despite ongoing prevention campaigns. Mr. Troedsson added that WHO wanted to prevent all cases of mother-to-child transmission. “We can and should eliminate transmission of HIV to children,” he said.

Threat of new infections

During the opening session, 13 youth delegates also spoke out about the need to include children and youths on the HIV and AIDS agenda. Speaking in their native languages, they urged governments to devote more attention to children affected by HIV and take appropriate action.

The youth delegates also pleaded for more tolerant attitudes towards people affected by the epidemic. “We want to raise our voices to stop discrimination of our friends and other people in our countries who are infected and affected by HIV and AIDS,” said a child from Viet Nam.

UNAIDS estimates that around 31,000 children under the age of 15 are living with HIV and AIDS in East Asia and the Pacific, with nearly 11,000 newly infected last year. The disease is estimated to have orphaned around 450,000 children in the region.
Without concerted efforts to expand prevention efforts, the region could face a marked increase in those numbers, experts said at the conference. The number of new infections among children could exceed 25,000 a year by 2015 and the number of orphans could rise above 1.6 million, according to a presentation by John Stover of the Futures Group, an international public health consulting firm.

Ignorance about HIV

But HIV prevention efforts in Asia face a major challenge reflected in the results of recent surveys by Save the Children, which show that many children and young people there still do not know how HIV is transmitted.

Although 80 to 90 per cent of children in six Southeast Asian countries had heard about AIDS, many of them still believed they could contract HIV by holding hands with an infected person or through a mosquito bite, said Save the Children consultant Lindsay Daines, citing surveys conducted last year.

Thirty per cent of children in Cambodia and 25 per cent in Thailand believed mosquitoes could transmit the virus. In Cambodia, around 10 per cent of children living with an HIV-positive parent said they were afraid to hold their parent’s hand because they feared infection. “This shows that while we’re doing the education, the message is not getting through,” said Mr. Daines.

These perceptions were particularly troubling in countries such as Cambodia and Thailand, which have had long-running campaigns against HIV, added Mr. Daines. Other experts at the conference also underscored persistent ignorance about the virus among children and young people across Asia – which is witnessing one of the fastest growing AIDS epidemics.



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