Meeting calls for response to AIDS orphans crisis

(IRIN) PlusNews

The impact of HIV/AIDS on orphans and vulnerable children has reached overwhelming proportions, yet governments have failed to respond adequately to the situation, public health experts said on Tuesday.

Public health experts, health ministers, and NGOs gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, at an urgent UN meeting on children to develop an effective response to the crisis.

They are the one aspect of the epidemic that has been most neglected. Children fall off the political table more easily, they are always at the tag end of the political equation, Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa said at a press briefing.

The number of orphans would continue to rise for at least the next decade. The 10-year lag in infection and death meant that the numbers of orphans would continue to remain high, even with declining HIV prevalence rates, Alan Whiteside, director of the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division at the University of Natal, said at the meeting.

According to a discussion paper presented at the meeting, orphaned children were more likely to die and be malnourished, and were more vulnerable to HIV infection than other children. They were also more likely to be abused and exploited.

The meeting concluded with practical steps that participants agreed to implement within the coming year, Lewis said. The group resolved to ensure that all African governments engaged in parliamentary debate on the issue of AIDS orphans and addressed their needs. 

They would also enlist the support of faith-based organisations. They have more influence than any other group but they have not been as engaged as they should have been, Lewis told PlusNews.

Keeping parents alive was the ideal solution. Mother-to-child transmission prevention programmes had to treat mothers and families, not just infants, he added.

Lewis was optimistic that the gathering would offer real benefits to orphaned children. This was unlike any UN meeting I've ever been at ... I cannot remember a single day as focused and productive as this one. There was no indulgence and no time was lost, he said.

This meeting has helped us as governments to see the way better to put children at the forefront, Botswana's Health Minister Joy Phumaphi told PlusNews.

Participants attending the meeting included the UN Children's Fund Executive Director Carol Bellamy, the ministers of health from Botswana and Senegal, and health workers and activists from Uganda, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Johannesburg, 11 September (IRIN)