UNAIDS Head Puts the Spotlight on Children and Teens
A sobering but not surprising story on transmission of HIV to children via sexual abuse, incest and early teenage sex. - AC
HEALTH: UNAIDS Head Puts the Spotlight on Children and Teens
By Adrianne Appel
BOSTON, Sep 30 (IPS) - The executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) is urging action as concerns the transmission of HIV to children through sexual abuse, incest and early teenage sex.
Many outreach programmes target HIV-positive pregnant women and young children, and progress is being made in this arena, Peter Piot told IPS during a recent conference at Harvard Medical School in the eastern U.S. city of Boston.
But, "There is more than mother-to-child transmission, much more. This is neglected and is even a cover up."
"We should not put our heads in the sand…We must prevent new HIV infections."
Lack of attention to these difficulties especially affects girls and women, who now account for nearly half of those infected with HIV, about 48 percent. In 2006, an estimated 17.7 million women worldwide had HIV, according to the 2006 World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS annual AIDS Epidemic Update.
Females are more likely to be abused and engage in unwanted sex due to gender inequality in education, property rights and sexual relationships, Piot said. "Girls are so much more vulnerable to HIV.''
More and more women are being infected with HIV worldwide, causing a "feminisation" of the pandemic, he added, noting that this was especially true in Africa, where nearly 60 percent of those with HIV are women, compared to about 50 percent worldwide.
In sub-Saharan Africa, about 75 percent of people 15-24 years old with HIV are female, according to a 2007 WHO report.
Nations need to have public debates about sensitive subjects such as the need for sex education and respect for girls -- and should broadly distribute condoms and HIV prevention materials, Piot noted.
"A major way that a child gets HIV is through sex abuse, between a young girl and an older man, and sex between adolescents, and incest. We must address this,'' he added.
"Sex abuse exists everywhere in the world. Like violence against women, sex abuse is a matter of societal norms."
UNAIDS is working with the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS to call on leaders to enact policies and laws to protect women's rights, including those concerning adequate education, property and prevention of violence.
In certain societies, married men are permitted to have multiple sexual partners; yet because of fear of violence and economic dependency, a wife may be afraid to ask her husband to wear a condom. The men catch HIV and bring it home to their wives, according to the Global Coalition.
Females are doubly vulnerable because when exposed to HIV during sexual intercourse they are more likely to catch it than males. Many young women become infected as soon as they begin having sex, the Coalition reports.
The lack of sex education and HIV prevention programmes for girls and teens is part of an overall lack of attention to young adults who are living with HIV, vulnerable to HIV or have lost a parent due to HIV, Piot observed further.
Children are growing up HIV-positive, and few initiatives address their needs for support around treatment, socialising and teen sex, he said. "It's a new reality and poorly understood."
Young people are often denied access to condoms and prevention information for political reasons and cultural taboos. Nearly half of all new infections each year are among young adults, Piot added.
"Sex education in schools is not universal and the problem cuts across all continents. Yet the U.N. has declared that children have a right to life-saving information."
Girls who receive sex education tend to delay sexual activity and practice safe sex, according to the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute: a non-profit that conducts research into sexual and reproductive health, amongst others.
But in general, there is great ignorance among young people about HIV, Piot said. "It is stunning to see."
Outreach workers know little about the needs of young adults with HIV because they have not been included as a separate group in data gathering, he added. "There is a big difference between a child of 15 who gets infected and a young woman of 24 -- and a child of five, and a newborn."
"It is a failure of international organisations and epidemiologists."
Douglas Webb, a children's AIDS specialist with the Eastern and Southern Africa office of the United Nations Children's Fund, said at the Boston conference that certain studies suggest young adults who experience bereavement through HIV are traumatised by this experience, and seek out earlier sexual relationships.
A study from Zimbabwe, where a high teenage pregnancy rate exists, found that girls who have lost their mothers are very vulnerable to contracting HIV through early sex, he noted further.
In Swaziland, one out of four households is headed by a child because the parents have died of AIDS, according to UNAIDS.
The stigma against teenagers with HIV can be particularly harsh, and interfere with school and treatment, said Malawian HIV activist Noerine Kaleeba, also at the Boston gathering.
Kaleeba cares for 28 HIV-positive children, including three teenagers on anti-retrovirals.
"They are finding it difficult to adhere to their schedule (of treatment) because of school,'' where they are teased, she said.
"What can we do for these children, who have to be on treatment?"
John Williamson of the Displaced Children and Orphans Fund, an initiative of the United States Agency for International Development, said the need among all children with HIV is great.
"The reality is that the majority of children with HIV aren't getting help outside of their extended families." (END/2007)