26 October 2005
Secretary-General, at Launch of UNICEF's Global Anti-Aids Campaign, Laments Lack of Basic Safety Information that Could Spare Millions of Children
NEW YORK, 25 October (UN Headquarters) -- Children and youth made up half the new HIV/AIDS infections worldwide, often due to a lack of simple and fundamental safety information, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today at the launch of a global United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) campaign to combat the pandemic.
Opening the event, entitled "Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS", Mr. Annan said the campaign was a call for united action against an epidemic that was increasingly hurting children and young people. Millions of children were already affected by it, with a young person contracting the virus every 15 seconds, including those infected through the most heart-rending form of transmission -- from mother to child.
He stressed that the international community must unite to reach young people with the life-saving information they needed. It must translate commitments into concrete action, strengthen partnerships, mobilize funding, and unleash all its energy and imagination in communicating with children and young people in a language that worked for them.
Carrying the discussion further, Ann Veneman, Executive Director of UNICEF, said that the very visible 25-year-old pandemic continued to have "an invisible face, a missing face, a child's face". A whole generation of youth today had never known a world without HIV/AIDS, which had redefined their childhood, forcing them to grow up alone, too fast -- or sadly, not at all. For young people in the most affected countries, where life expectancy had plummeted from the mid-60s to the early 30s, turning 18 meant reaching middle age.
An estimated 15 million children had lost one or both parents to AIDS, but less than 10 per cent of them, or of those made vulnerable by the disease, received support, she said. Less that 10 per cent of pregnant women were offered services to prevent transmission to their infants, and less than 5 per cent of those needing treatment were getting it.
She said the campaign would focus on reducing the percentage of young people living with HIV/AIDS by 25 per cent; covering 80 per cent of women needing services to prevent mother-to-child transmission; providing paediatric AIDS treatment to 80 per cent of children in need; and reaching 80 per cent of children in need of protection and support.
Another keynote speaker was Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), who noted that elements of the campaign's agenda had already been carried out in many communities, but never on a scale commensurate with the problem. The campaign was an opportunity to reverse the epidemic, which would only be possible if the global community paid special heed to the missing links -- children and young people. The pandemic was so complex and so overwhelming that only action on many fronts would make a difference.
The launch ceremony also heard from Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of Rwanda, who emphasized the need for Governments to commit themselves to the campaign, which, as much as anything else, was about partnerships, pulling together resources, skills and political will.
Speaking as a person living with the AIDS-causing virus, Frika Iskandar, Co-Chair of the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, noted that, while the epidemic was growing quickly, ignorance about it abounded throughout the region. Upon being diagnosed nearly five years ago, her parents had been afraid that she would infect the whole family. No longer allowed to share a room with her little sisters, she had been assigned one plate and a set of utensils, as well as being treated like a monster in her own home.
She said that in time, her parents had found other parents of HIV-positive children, started a support group, and learned the power of general education in fighting the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. If children did not learn to read and write, they would have little chance of learning how to protect themselves from the disease or developing the self-esteem and life skills required to remain safe.
UNICEF Youth Ambassador Kerrel McKay recounted her experience with an HIV-afflicted parent, saying that her father had contracted HIV when she was nine years old. With nobody but her to look after him, he had been unable to work and lacked money for the needed medicine, for her school supplies, and often for food. Other children had taunted and teased her, adults had been cruel, and the nurses in the hospital where he was eventually admitted often did not bathe or feed him.
Too afraid to reveal her secret and emotionally unprepared for the end, Ms. McKay had decided to escape by taking her own life, she said. Fortunately, she had been helped by a lady in the Jamaica AIDS Society, who had given her the hope to go on. However, millions of other children with parents dead or dying from AIDS were alone. Little support was given to the 15 million of them orphaned by the disease. Speaking out and urging the world to remedy the toll that the scourge had taken on children was the only way to beat it.
Namibian AIDS peer educator Livey van Wyk agreed that young people living with HIV must seek help without fear of blame, which could only occur when they stopped seeing HIV as a punishment for bad behaviour. She herself had been banished to her grandmother's farm by her mother after finding found out she was pregnant and HIV-positive at 17 years of age. The local people had not wanted her living among them and would throw stones at her. Her dreams for the future had died during those lonely days. At present, she was trying to educate young people about AIDS, but her effort to give the affliction a human face was an uphill battle due to the stigma attached to it. Even though tens of thousands of young people suffered from AIDS, many were unwilling to speak openly about their experiences.
Addressing the role of communications in publicizing HIV/AIDS, Bill Roedy, President of MTV Networks International, said the launch had led to an unprecedented mobilization of the world's media, with the potential to reach billions of people. The media were perfectly placed to fight and overcome the terrible stigma that held people back. Above all, the media must listen to young people, who were the real leaders in the fight, and who would ultimately win it.
Also participating in the launch were UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Roger Moore, as well as youth activists Nakwan Leknork from Thailand and Iryna Kalinichenko from Ukraine.
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