By Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, Head of Caritas Internationalis Delegation in Geneva
In conjunction with the 14th meeting of the United Nations Council on Human Rights, it is rare to see a full meeting room during the lunchtime parallel events. On Wednesday, 16 June, there were few empty seats at the Special Session on “Right to Health: Better Access to Testing and Treatment for HIV-positive Children”, co-organized by Caritas Internationalis and the Association of Pope John XXIII (APG-23) and co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the Holy See and the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations in Geneva.
Speakers included officials from the WHO Paediatric AIDS Unit, UNAIDS Human Rights Department, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, UNITAID, an APG-23 missionary doctor working in Zambia, and myself.
The UN officials and government representatives acknowledged the role of Caritas and other Catholic organisations in the global response to HIV and AIDS. The Ambassador of Italy to the UN in Geneva directly thanked Caritas for its excellent service both in her own country and elsewhere. The Ambassador of Sudan to the UN praised the Cardinal Archbishop of Khartoum for preaching about AIDS during his Christmas homily and for encouraging people to be tested for HIV and to seek appropriate treatment, if necessary; he said that such witness from the Church also influenced government response to this epidemic.
Speakers highlighted the progress made toward greater access to treatment for children living with HIV:
- 275,000 children now receive appropriate anti-retroviral and other medications (40% of those in need of such treatment)
- five new paediatric fixed dose combination tablets have become available; their price is USD $80 per year per child and they can be administered easily even in low-income settings
- diagnosis of HIV among infants is more readily available; some 150,000 such tests are performed each year
- thousands of physicians and nurses have been trained to administer and monitor paediatric HIV treatment
- approximately 200,000 paediatric infections have been avoided by earlier diagnosis of HIV in pregnant women and use of anti-retroviral medicines for mother and their newborn babies
- through the Patent Pool being established by UNITAID (funded mainly by voluntary taxes on airline tickets), it is hoped that new, low-cost generic medications can be developed and made available at affordable prices
They also listed the serious challenges that impede even greater progress with prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and provision of access to testing and treatment for HIV-infected children. They include:
- the global economic crisis and shifting of donor priorities present a threat to sustainability of anti-retroviral treatment programmes in many low-income countries
- weak health systems and supply-chain management facilities interfere with uninterrupted provision and monitoring of medications
- second- and third-line medications are priced far beyond the reach of governments in low-income countries.
Speakers with networks and experience in developing countries told poignant stories of HIV-positive children whose lives were cut short because they lacked access to life-saving medications.
Dr. Mara Rossi, with years of experience in Zambia, spoke of Martin, who was an eight-year-old AIDS patient whose condition worsened as he fell ill with a severe brain and nervous system infection; one day she asked him what he would like her to bring during her visit the next day – fruits? Juice? Sweets? He looked at her with his sad eyes and replied: “Dr. Mara, bring me the medicines.”
I spoke of the Caritas HAART for Children Campaign which aims at promoting stronger advocacy to address the challenges that impede greater access to “child-friendly” medicines for children. Showing a photo of smiling children receiving such medicines in a programme sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and I expressed the hope that “our Caritas Campaign will be successful in bringing such smiles to the faces of many more HIV-positive children in all parts of the world.”