Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS



Peter Piot,
Executive Director

on the occasion of the Special Session of the General Assembly on Children

New York,
10 May 2002

Mr President, Excellencies,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ideally, children would live in a world without AIDS. But our world is not like that. HIV exists in every corner of the planet, and children and young people are its prime targets.

Every day, six thousand young people under 24 are infected with HIV. Every day, two thousand infants contract HIV through mother-to-child transmission. Every day, more than six thousand children are left orphans by AIDS, a third of them under 5 years old. And every day, sixteen hundred children die of AIDS.

Across the globe, children under 18 make up around 10 per cent of the 40 million people who are living with HIV.

UNAIDS - the programme that brings together eight Cosponsoring UN system organisations in a joint focus on HIV/AIDS - places the highest priority on young people's response to AIDS, in our support to countries as well as in our global advocacy. Our Cosponsor UNICEF, in particular, has responded to the impact of the HIV epidemic on children in all its aspects - prevention of mother to child transmission, orphan support, strengthening school responses, and paying special attention to children in conflict and other vulnerable situations.

The tools to protect the world's children from AIDS are known. Applying them requires action in three ways: meeting global targets already set, enforcing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and delivering full-scale programmes to mothers, orphans and adolescents.

First, we must be serious about the targets agreed to by all the nations of the world.

We have the Millennium Goals, set by the largest gathering of heads of state in history. We have the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, adopted unanimously at the General Assembly's Special Session on AIDS last June. Its landmark targets on AIDS have now been taken up as a major pillar of the outcome document from this Session.

All share a single vision of a world where the HIV epidemic is in decline, where fewer young people are infected with HIV, where HIV transmission from mother to child is halved, where orphans are supported, and where we have the resources necessary for the AIDS fight.

These targets are empty gestures unless we use them as an instrument of accountability.

Second, we must use the Convention on the Rights of the Child as an instrument to combat AIDS.

Children have the right to be protected from stigma - Article 2 - yet children with AIDS or whose parents have AIDS are frequently the targets of hate.

Children have the right to information, in particular health information - Articles 13, 17 and 24 - yet only sixty per cent of young people in the world's worst affected countries know the basics about protecting themselves from HIV.

Children have the right to education - Article 28 - yet last year a million African schoolchildren lost their teacher to AIDS.

Children have the right to be protected from exploitation - Articles 32 and 34 - yet a million children are forced into the sex trade each year.

Children have the right to protection from conflict - Article 38 - yet the disruption and movement of populations and influx of soldiers make children even more vulnerable to HIV in conflict zones.

Children have the right to the highest attainable standard of health - Article 24 - yet life-prolonging AIDS drugs get to less than 5 per cent of the population that need them.

Third, we must make progress on a clear set of deliverables.

In wealthy countries, the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child had been cut to 2 per cent. Without intervention that risk can be as high as 30 per cent. Even a single dose of an antiretroviral drug can cut the risk by half.

Today, less than five per cent of pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa have access to services for the prevention of mother to child transmission. But things are changing. UNAIDS - in particular our Cosponsoring organisation UNICEF - has expanded prevention projects, along with Foundations and non-governmental organisations. The need to respond extends to caring for women and families living with HIV. A new mother-to-child transmission `plus' initiative will support expanded services on three continents, supported by a group of philanthropic foundations, in partnership with the UNAIDS Secretariat and Cosponsors, non-governmental organisations and the global research community.

The number of children orphaned by AIDS has exceeded thirteen million. Their care and protection is an enormous strain, but communities can be helped to cope. Government, community, religious and women's organisations are cooperating to keep orphans in school, provide food supplies, set up income generating projects, and give psychological support.

But it would be shameful hypocrisy to respond to the needs of orphans while ignoring the causes of AIDS. This is a classic instance where intervening `upstream' is better than trying to cope `downstream'. Taboo and ideology still stand in the way of effective HIV prevention for young people.

We know the proven tools include a combination of life skills and peer education for responsible and safe sexual behaviour, condom distribution, and youth-friendly services. But too few of these tools are being applied to mobilise young people into action.

Where young people are given the chance to organise themselves, they have shown they can tackle AIDS.

When I spoke at the Special Session on AIDS last year I said the world faced two paths: despair or hope. This week's session is a step on the path of hope.

May each of us have the courage to let a child take us by the hand and lead us to the future: where fears are confronted, shame is banished, and hope kept alive.

HIV is terrible, but we cannot let it claim victory. For the sake of children, we will not.

Thank you.