|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PRESS CONFERENCE ON STOCKTAKING REPORT ON CHILDREN, MOTHERS AFFECTED BY HIV/AIDS
Now was not the time to rest in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, despite dramatic increases in the prevention of mother to child transmission and in the treatment of HIV-positive children and youth, according to a new report released today by four United Nations agencies.
Rather, the report, presented at a Headquarters press conference, suggests that recent progress was an invitation to tackle remaining challenges, like improving early childhood diagnosis and access to antiretroviral therapy for HIV-positive mothers.
Marking the twentieth anniversary of World AIDS Day today were officials from several agencies. Among them were Jimmy Kolker, Chief, HIV and AIDS Section, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); Bertil Lindblad, Director, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, New York Office; Andrey Pirogov, Executive Director, World Health Organization, New York Office; and Steven Kraus, Chief, HIV and AIDS Section, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The President of Futbol Club Barcelona, Joan Laporta, was also present.
“Despite collective efforts to achieve Millennium Development Goal 6 -– to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases -- the AIDS epidemic continues to affect millions of lives. As many as 2 million children below the age of 15 have HIV, of whom 90 per cent live in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Mr. Pirogov. Recent initiatives, such as the Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign, launched in 2005, had already resulted in significant progress. In 2007, 33 per cent of HIV-positive pregnant women received antiretroviral treatment to prevent mother-to-child transmission, up from 10 per cent in 2004. Also last year, nearly 200,000 children received antiretroviral therapy, compared to only 75,000 in 2005.
“We must keep up a similar momentum, even in the face of an economic slowdown,” he urged.
The report specifically highlights the need to improve early diagnosis and treatment of newborn babies exposed to HIV/AIDS. According to Mr. Kolker, statistics had shown that the diagnosis and treatment of newborns in their first 12 weeks of life had the potential to increase survival rates by up to 75 per cent. Yet, less than 10 per cent of children born to HIV-positive mothers had been tested in their first two months. “That’s something we can easily change,” he said, since technologies were already available. A scaled-up response to strengthen national capacity to provide adequate systems of protection, prevention and treatment was necessary to ensure diagnosis and treatment.
Mr. Kolker said more also needed to be done to provide HIV tests for pregnant women and to give them access to essential care and treatment. In 2007, only 18 per cent of pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries were given HIV tests and, of those who tested positive, only 12 per cent were further screened to determine the type of treatment they required. The testing of mothers was a high priority since a mother’s health directly impacted the health of her baby, and treating the mother could help reduce HIV transmission and prevent a child from becoming an orphan. Greater attention should also be given to the special needs and vulnerabilities of adolescent girls, since they remained 2 to 4 times more likely to be affected by HIV/AIDS than their male counterparts.
While paying tribute to all those involved in combating HIV/AIDS since the first World Aids Day, Mr. Kraus said, “If there’s one lesson we’ve learned in the past 20 years it’s that, when we have political leadership, when we have the community engaged, and when we have people living with HIV as part of the response, we can make a world of difference.” Well-designed, comprehensive approaches to combat HIV/AIDS that linked prevention to broader programmes and systems -- such as health, education and social systems -- would, as a whole, result in much greater success. For that reason, Mr. Kraus was particularly pleased to be joining hands with partners like Futbol Club Barcelona to work together towards providing a comprehensive response.
In 2006, Futbol Club Barcelona became the first sports institution to come out in full support of the Millennium Development Goals, by committing 0.7 per cent of its revenues to social programmes benefiting the world’s most vulnerable children and youth. Under a global alliance with UNICEF, the club decided to use “the power of football” to help combat HIV/AIDS in three pilot countries –- Swaziland, Malawi and Angola –- where the club supported a wide range of mother-to-child prevention programmes and HIV/AIDS programmes for youth. As a result of combined efforts, in 2007, more than 80 per cent of pregnant women in Swaziland had been tested for HIV, and 70 per cent of those who tested positive were already receiving antiretroviral treatment.
“The children of the world are our present, but also they are our future,” Mr. Laporta said, underscoring the need for all partners to provide children with the opportunity to overcome the vicious cycle of poverty and disease, to help them reach a better place in life.
Towards that goal, the report calls for several concrete and achievable actions that could bear fruit in the next several years, including the scaling up of programmes providing early diagnosis and treatment for infants exposed to HIV/AIDS, expanded access to antiretroviral drugs for pregnant women for their own health, and greater investment in the social sector, to improve protection of the most vulnerable children. As Mr. Lindblad noted, in the years to come there would likely be more people, overall, affected by HIV/AIDS, due to longer life expectancies for HIV-positive individuals and population growth. “We need to send a strong message that AIDS is not over,” he said, while calling for adequate financing and the political will to ensure that concrete actions were taken.
Asked about rumours of cuts by donor countries to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Mr. Kolker said there had been no cuts in pledges, but, due to a “record round” of grants approved by its Technical Review Panel -– worth roughly $3 billion –- there was a threat that, if new pledges did not come in during the next two years, there would be a need for reductions in the third to fifth years of approved grants. However, such a situation was not very likely since no country had reneged on promises of future funding.
As to the possibility of implementing universal mandatory testing for HIV/AIDS for pregnant women, Mr. Pirogov said it was a sensitive human rights issue due, in part, to the stigma that surrounded the disease. Mr. Kolker explained that, in an ideal situation, provider-initiated counselling and testing would take place and would be a routine procedure offered to all women in pre-natal clinics and other medical settings. While a patient always had the right to opt out of testing, experience had shown that more than 90 per cent of women accepted testing in those situations.
Regarding the specific role of the United Nations in combating HIV/AIDS, panellists emphasized the need for national ownership and the role of the United Nations in helping countries achieve their own objectives. The report, Mr. Kolker said in conclusion, should serve as a “programme for action” towards that goal.
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