By Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo*
VATICAN CITY — Massive progress has been made in relation to the diagnosis and treatment of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, since the 1980s. In 2015, UNAIDS announced we reached the milestone of getting 15 million people on anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs).
Timely diagnosis and effective treatment mean that many people are living with HIV rather than dying from it. However, only 42 percent of children with HIV were receiving ARVs in 2014.
Pregnant women are now diagnosed earlier and receive timely treatment. There’s less mother-to-child-transmission but once women see that their children are born healthy, many may go off treatment and this leaves the child open to infection with HIV through breastfeeding.
Caritas Internationalis cares deeply about the fates of these children and we want them to have a fighting chance of living a long and healthy life. We have joined efforts with UNAIDS, the U.S. President’s Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Vatican’s pediatric hospital Bambin Gesù to organize the conference “Strengthening the engagement of faith-based organizations in the early diagnosis and treatment for children living with HIV.”
At the conference we plan to build the groundwork for a roadmap to improve the diagnosis and treatment of children with HIV. We will share information with grassroots faith-based organizations (FBOs) so they promote or provide HIV testing for infants born to HIV-positive mothers and get children into treatment early. Many FBOs are doing this already, but the goal is to have no new HIV infections among children.
We’ve been able to bring HIV rates down in a number of countries across the world. But there are still a number of countries where we need to make progress in reducing mother-to-child-transmission. It’s not only a case of improving care and treatment but also we need to tackle issues such as stigma and ensure men support mothers when they are on treatment so they continue taking it.
A greater number of medicines have become available for children living with HIV, but we still need greater research on more child-friendly formulas. In some parts of the world certain medicines require refrigeration. For families in low-income countries who barely have enough money for food or schooling, buying a refrigerator is simply beyond their means. Even if they did, they may not have a constant electricity supply.
Beyond the practical HIV programs that Caritas runs around the world, we reach out to governments and pharmaceutical firms to urge them to create affordable child-friendly medicines. We developed HAART for Children, a campaign which focuses specifically on creating broad access of child-friendly HIV and TB medicines.
The Holy See has played import role in advocating for the opening up of intellectual property so that affordable medicines are available to a greater number of people. This is a vital issue in saving the lives of children with HIV.
The UN goal is to end AIDS as a public health emergency by 2030. Caritas and FBOs from around the world are putting their hearts and minds into working together to achieve this and ensuring that children living with HIV in 2015 are still healthy and strong when this goal is reached and far beyond.
*Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo works for Caritas Internationalis as both Head of Delegation to the United Nations in Geneva and special advisor on HIV/AIDS and Health.