By Michelle Hough, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis
If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito, goes the saying.
Representatives from UN agencies, drug companies and NGOs and faith-based organisations large and small (but very effective) came to Rome mid-October to make headway on the desperate problem of children living with HIV and TB in poor countries.
The occasion was a paediatrics AIDS conference organised by Caritas Internationalis and the US Embassy to the Holy See. There were few mosquitoes around thankfully, but lots of ideas and discussion on the issues surrounding children with AIDS and TB.
One of the main messages to emerge from the conference on improving testing and treatment for these children was that while all the organisations worked well in their fields, their impact would be much greater if they joined their forces together.
The Church, through organisations such as Caritas, provides an estimated 25 percent of AIDS healthcare in the world. Often the Church’s reach may be through small, grassroots projects which provide care and support and which have a powerful impact on people’s lives, but which don’t have the global voice or reach of an international organisation.
Some of the people at the conference were from big institutions. Michel Sidibé, head of UNAIDS remarked on the opening day, “Evidence we are receiving from the field is telling us that within a matter of a very few years, we can essentially halt the transmission of HIV from mothers to their children throughout the world. We can consign to history the heartbreaking image of babies born with HIV.”
One of the things Caritas Internationalis’ HAART for children campaign which was launched this year is trying to achieve is to ensure that poor women with HIV have access to the drugs which prevent transmission of the virus to their children.
Apart from the problems around transmission, which can be prevented if women have access to medication, the testing for HIV and TB (which is a common opportunistic infection in children and adults with HIV) in countries where there isn’t a lot of money for healthcare can be inaccurate.
Pharmaceutical companies, such as GlaxoSmithKilne were also at the conference. Their buy-in to improved testing and treatment is essential because important changes need to be made to the HIV (antiretrovirals – ARVS) and TB medicine that children have access to in poor countries.
Sometimes tablets are too big for small children to swallow. Some types of medication need to be mixed with clean water to be used – how do you get hold of that every day in a drought-stricken country? Liquid medication often has to be stored in a fridge. For families who can’t even afford three meals a day, how are they going to be able to buy a fridge? These are just a few things that need to be considered when developing future drugs.
Fr John Toai from the Mai Tam House of Hope in Ho Chi Minh City gave a moving testimony of the difficulties faced by the children with HIV he looks after. He spoke of how they were turned away from school and how one young boy who was dying from complications from AIDS gave away his much-treasured suit to another child.
Essentially the conference gave the big institutions who have the power to change AIDS healthcare and the people who work on the ground and see how it is decimating younger generations in poorer parts of the world to share their experiences and discuss where to go next.
“HIV/AIDS is one of the greatest challenges of our times. And like so many others, the sheer scale of the problem means that it demands solutions at a global level. But I think it is always helpful to keep in mind that in the final analysis we are not dealing with global statistics, but with individual, precious lives,” said Lesley-Anne Knight, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis.