Parliamentarians key in fight to increase children’s access to HIV treatment

By Eliane Drakopoulos | March 26, 2014

On March 17, 2014 the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) hosted an event for parliamentarians from around the world to discuss the importance of ensuring access to treatment for children living with HIV. EGPAF also released a new video (featured below), highlighting the problems children face in accessing HIV treatment during the meeting.

The event took place during the IPU’s 130th Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. It brought together more than 700 parliamentarians from 141 countries. The group  discussed issues of common concern in a wide range of areas, such as health, children’s rights, women’s political participation, global security, democracy, and global development.

Representatives from several countries most affected by HIV/AIDS attended the EGPAF/IPU event, including those from Botswana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

More than 700 children a day are newly infected with HIV, more than 90 percent of whom live in  sub-Saharan Africa. While they carry a huge burden of disease, children are accessing treatment at only about half the rate of adults – 34 percent of children needing HIV treatment currently access such care, while 64 percent of adults do.

The event was an opportunity for parliamentarians and experts on pediatric HIV treatment to discuss the best methods to ensure increased pediatric access to HIV treatment. Special emphasis was placed on parliamentarians’ role in this endeavor, as outlined in the IPU-EGPAF brief for parliamentarians, “Increasing Children’s Access to HIV Treatment.”

Philip O’Brien, EGPAF’s executive vice-president of communications, advocacy, and development, chaired the discussion. 

“The need to scale up access to HIV treatment is not only clear – it is an emergency. And the role of parliamentarians in helping us to achieve this is critical,” said O’Brien. “Without political support and action, we will not be able to achieve the gains that are so desperately needed to keep these children alive and help them to flourish.”

 

Ms. Thabitha Khumalo, a member of parliament (MP) from Zimbabwe and Vice-President of the IPU’s Advisory Group on HIV/AIDS and Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health, echoed these sentiments. She spoke movingly of her own experiences in witnessing the toll that HIV is taking on children in Africa, and the difficulties in ensuring that they have access to medicines that are child-friendly and palatable.

“We risk sentencing a generation of children to death if we do not do more to ensure their right to the medications that will help keep them alive and healthy,” she said. “These children are the same ones who could one day be sitting in our seats in parliament – but only if we give them a chance.”

A parliamentary representative agreed, saying, “Governments need to showcase what they are doing to help children living with HIV access treatment, so that we can all learn from each other’s experiences. We need to realize that this is not just a national problem, but an international one – and that sadly, children are not high on the political agenda and we urgently need to change this.”

Dr. Karusa Kiragu, senior prevention advisor at UNAIDS, stressed that World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines show that treatment must begin immediately for any child younger than the age of five who is diagnosed with HIV.

“With children especially, it is urgent to start treatment immediately – we do not have the luxury to wait because peak mortality begins at two to three months,” she said. 

Dr. Kiragu also noted that any clinic or other facility that provides treatment for adults should also be providing treatment for children, and asked parliamentarians to request a status report from health centers in their constituencies when they return home, to make sure that this is happening.

Dr. Francesca Celletti, EGPAF’s director of health systems strengthening, explained that when it comes to expanding access to HIV treatment for children, the world is lagging far behind.

“With children, we are where we were about 10 to 15 years ago with adult treatment. We can and should do better. We need to be where the children are – in primary health care centers and in the communities – ensuring that they are diagnosed and treated effectively with appropriate medications,” she said.

Parliamentarians at the meeting expressed warm appreciation for having this serious issue brought to their attention, and pledged to follow up upon their return home. Some said that they were not aware of the disparity in access to treatment by children versus adults, and expressed dismay.

However, as one parliamentarian said, “I am taking this as a challenge to go back home and sit with the AIDS committee in my parliament to see what we can do to take better care of our children living with HIV.”

Click here learn more about EGPAF’s global advocacy work with governments around the world.

Eliane Drakopoulos is EGPAF’s public policy and advocacy officer, based in Geneva, Switzerland.