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Millions of Nigerian children devastated by HIV/AIDS

As Nigeria celebrates Children’s Day, UNICEF is concerned by the slow progress made in reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS on children.

Abuja, 27 May 2006 – As Nigerian children are celebrating the national Children’s Day under the theme ‘Children and HIV/AIDS: addressing the challenges’, UNICEF is concerned that progress has been slow in providing adequate support, care and treatment for children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Since the launch of the campaign ‘Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS’ more than six months ago, little has been achieved with regard to the targets set by the campaign.

“Although the HIV prevalence rate in Nigeria has decreased from 5.8 per cent in 2001 to 4.4 per cent in 2005, according to the recent sero-prevalence sentinel survey published by the Ministry of Health, the disease is still a long way from being brought under control’, said Mr Ayalew Abai, UNICEF Representative in Nigeria. ‘In fact, we should redouble our efforts. Young people still represent the most affected age group. One in twenty young people aged 20 to 29 years old is infected by HIV. There is also an estimated 1.8 million children orphaned by AIDS in Nigeria. But this is just a fraction of the number of children whose lives have been radically altered by the impact of HIV/AIDS on their families and communities. Thousands of children are living with sick and dying parents. This can cause extreme psychological distress, not to talk about the economic hardship, the stigma and discrimination, the malnutrition threatening their very survival and development.’

According to experts, 30 percent of the children infected by the virus globally die before their first birthday and 50 percent before age 2. Most of those deaths will have occurred in undiagnosed children who did not receive care or anti-retroviral treatment. Although a national paediatric treatment programme for HIV/AIDS began in 2004 in Nigeria, very few HIV-infected children are accessing ARV treatments to date. Few are currently receiving a basic antibiotic, cotrimoxazole, necessary to prevent opportunistic infections. Yet cotrimoxazole prophylaxis is recommended for all HIV-infected infants.

To prevent infections in young children, the best approach is the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV. 90% of the infections occurring in children under the age of 15 years are acquired from infected mothers. In Nigeria, more than 230 Health sites provide services for the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV compared to about 60 last year. Despite this marked progress, it is estimated that less than 1% of pregnant mothers have access to counseling and testing services. The ‘Universal Access to prevention, treatment, care and support’, which was launched recently in Nigeria, demands that all positive pregnant women have access to PMTCT services everywhere in the country. Such scaling-up of this programme would dramatically reduce the number of HIV positive children.

Regarding the situation of Orphans and vulnerable children, a national plan of action has been finalized under the coordination of the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs, with UNICEF support. It will need to be implemented urgently as responses to the situation of vulnerable children are mostly confined to families and communities. Considering the burden of poverty, these support mechanisms provided by families and communities are under considerable strain. Local NGOs are also trying to reinforce the ‘social safety net’ for affected families and households, but their action remains limited. Strengthening the capacity of families to protect and care for children by providing economic, psychosocial and other support should therefore be a Government priority. Ensuring access for orphans and vulnerable children to essential services, including quality education, health care and birth registration is equally important.

Prevention among adolescents and young people is another key area of the “Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS” campaign.  Young people need information on HIV to be able to know risky behaviors and to protect themselves from the virus. Considerable efforts have been made by the Federal Ministry of Education and the National Action Committee on AIDS to prevent the spread of HIV among children and teenagers in schools. A curriculum on Family Life and HIV/AIDS Education has been developed and training of teachers undertaken. An education Sector Strategic Plan on HIV/AIDS is also under development. But the availability of learning materials is still limited and training of teachers needs to be scaled up.

The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) has also immensely contributed to the education of young people through its HIV prevention programme supported by UNICEF. In three years, it has trained more than 300,000 peer educators in the entire country. However the vast majority of young people who are out of schools and difficult to reach have no access to information, skills and services needed to protect themselves from HIV. Interventions in this area need to be accelerated, working through community based initiatives, youth groups and other civil society organizations.

The key areas that require urgent action are:

  1. Re-alignment of the National Strategic Framework to generate a concrete national vision and response for children and AIDS.
  2. Structures and community-based mechanisms for responding to orphans, including budgetary inputs for home care package for orphans.
  3. Rapid scaling up of PMTCT programme to reach at least 60% of pregnant women who require PMTCT services in the country at grassroots level.
  4. Establish a Paediatric AIDS programme with strategies, targets, monitoring and evaluation mechanism and necessary resources.

Once more, UNICEF calls on all sectors of society to come together and support the millions of Nigerian children whose lives have been devastated by HIV/AIDS. The Nigeria Children’s Day is a time to celebrate, but also a time to reflect on what actions need to be taken. Nigerian citizens can Unite for children, Unite against AIDS, they can free the next generation from HIV.

For further information, please contact:

  • Geoffrey NJOKU, Communication Officer, UNICEF Nigeria, cell: 08035250288

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