HIV & AIDS and Children

Experts say HIV prevention efforts aren’t reaching children at risk in East Asia and Pacific

Under-18 delegates representing the People’s Republic of China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia and Viet Nam read a powerful call for “actions not just talk” at the opening of the East Asia and Pacific Regional Consultation on Children and AIDS.

By Jennifer Chen

HANOI, Viet Nam, 23 March 2006 – HIV prevention efforts in East Asia and the Pacific are failing to reach children and young people most at risk of infection because of persistent stigma and discrimination, experts said Thursday at the region’s highest-level conference on the virus’s impact on children.

Prevention is vital for East Asia and the Pacific because the region’s low prevalence provides a narrow window of opportunity to stop an escalation of new infections, said experts attending the first East Asia and Pacific Regional Consultation on Children and HIV/AIDS in Hanoi, Viet Nam. However, they added, prevention efforts are failing to reach children and young people at high risk of HIV infection because of prevailing negative attitudes towards street children, injecting drug users and sex workers.

Populations at risk

“Most new infections are among young people, and the people most at risk are young. But most [prevention] programmes being implemented by governments and their partners – such as NGOs – are not at a high enough scale, and sometimes they’re reaching the wrong people,” said Family Health International’s Senior Technical Officer for Care and Support, Kim Green.

“The problem is that a lot of the populations that are at risk are also criminalized because of societal attitudes towards drug users, men who have sex with men, children living on the streets.”

Ms. Green warned that this oversight could have huge consequences, as already witnessed in countries in the region where epidemics began with marginalized groups before crossing over to the general population.

Currently, 31,000 children under the age of 15 are living with HIV in East Asia and the Pacific. But international health officials say that number could rise steeply if high-risk populations are not targeted and programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission are not expanded. They also note that the lack of surveillance and adequate data on high-risk groups have made it difficult to tailor prevention programmes.

Greater role for youth

Meanwhile, youth delegates to the three-day consultation demanded a greater role in efforts aimed at preventing new infections.

“For young people, preventing HIV infections is one of the best ways that we can contribute,” a 17-year-old girl from China told the meeting. The youth delegates urged adults to support children’s participation in prevention activities through peer education and youth volunteer associations.

In a presentation, the 13 youth delegates also addressed the epidemic’s impact on their lives and those of their peers. Said an 18-year-old from Papua New Guinea: “There is a lack of opportunities and jobs, high living costs and high school fees that lead to young boys, girls and adults getting involved in drugs and alcohol to forget about their problems.”


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