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XVII International AIDS Conference closes with a focus on children

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UNICEF's HIV and AIDS Chief Jimmy Kolker says conferences like the one in Mexico City help provide much needed tools to fight AIDS.

by Thomas Nybo 

MEXICO CITY, Mexico, 8 August 2008 – As the 17th International AIDS Conference came to a close in Mexico City, issues affecting children were front and center. 

"This conference is the first one that's really had children on the agenda," said UNICEF's HIV and AIDS Chief Jimmy Kolker. "There have been more than 300 presentations dealing with children and AIDS." 

Mr. Kolker stressed that a number of 'second-generation' issues dealing with children still require more attention. 

"One of the issues that has been insufficiently addressed here is the question of adolescents who are HIV-positive, who are now at risk themselves for transmitting the virus, and who may be growing up not knowing they're infected," Mr. Kolker said. "The good news is they are alive as teenagers. The difficult problem is that this creates a whole new set of issues that we haven't dealt with before.”

Young people sharing their stories

An articulate roster of young people were on hand to share their experiences, including Gugulethu Kumalo of Zimbabwe, who is 20-years-old.

Gugulethu was orphaned by AIDS 10 years ago. Early in life, she knew she was sick because she had persistent skin infections, but she wasn't sure what caused the outbreaks. 

"My new parents had my brother and I tested for HIV,” she told a room full of conference participants. "My brother tested negative; I tested positive... so I was born HIV-positive."

‘This is abnormal’

One urgent concern in Zimbabwe is sexual violence against women and girls, including torture and gang rape, where the perpetrators often remain on the streets without being prosecuted.

Betty Makoni is the founder of 'Girl Child Network', a non-profit organisation that supports nearly 700 girls' clubs. As a teacher, she started her first club after realising that two-thirds of the girls at her school were forced to interrupt their education because of poverty, AIDS, or violence and rape.

Makoni herself was raped when she was just six-years-old and she also lost her mother to domestic violence. 

"When one woman is raped in Africa by 18 men, why should it take up to 20 years for criminals to be brought to justice?" Makoni asked. "It should be headlines in every newspaper to say: this is abnormal."

Despite progess, more work is needed

Despite signs of progress in the fight against AIDS, some 370,000 children were newly diagnosed with HIV last year. A conference like this one, said Jimmy Kolker, helps provide some much-needed tools.

"I think if the general public were to be at this conference, one thing they'd appreciate is the dynamics of having scientists talking to activists, talking to practitioners and implementers," he said. "Part of the strength of the AIDS response now is that there's a conference that brings together all these constituencies to see what really works in practice." 

The 17th International AIDS Conference ran from 3-8 August in Mexico City.



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