Asia's children are being left behind in the fight against HIV/AIDS a regional conference in Vietnam has heard. The three-day meeting is the first to focus on limiting the spread of AIDS among young people and helping children infected or orphaned by the disease.
In the East Asia-Pacific region, 31,000 children under 15 are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and 1.5 million young people have been orphaned by the disease.
U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Marine is one of 250 delegates at the first East Asia and Pacific Regional Consultation on Children and HIV/AIDS, going on this week in Hanoi. He says the anti-AIDS fight must start to target children.
"The issue of orphans and vulnerable children has not been a major part of the debate surrounding HIV/AIDS in Asia," said Marine. "I believe it is time for that to change."
One urgent task identified at the conference was the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Simple drug treatments and bottle-feeding can drastically cut infection rates among babies of HIV-positive women.
But Hans Troedsson, head of the World Health Organization office in Hanoi, says current programs are not reaching enough HIV-positive women in Asia.
"Coverage of prevention of mother-to-child transmission intervention is still too low at all levels. We can and should eliminate transmission of HIV to children," he said. "It is doable."
Officials with the UN AIDS agency say that if Asian governments scaled-up their response to HIV in children, they could prevent six million new infections by 2010.
UNICEF's regional director for East and the Pacific, Anupama Rao Singh, says such goals are attainable.
"I think there are examples from this region, for instance Thailand is an example, … where just by getting prevention of mother to child transmission services accepted by more than 90 percent of the pregnant women, they have actually met the target that was set at the U.N. Special Session on AIDS, which was to reduce transmission from mothers to children, babies, by half," said Singh.
Other issues discussed at the conference include increasing access to drug treatment for children with AIDS and improving the lives of children whose parents have died of the disease. But delegates emphasize that protecting children from AIDS involves not just new ideas, but old ones that have never been fully implemented, like education on prevention.
One recent survey in China showed that 50 percent of girls aged between 15 and 20 could not name a single way of protecting themselves from HIV.
Thirteen-year-old Huy, from Vietnam, was among the young people attending the conference through the efforts of the charity Save the Children.
Huy says he does not have HIV, but his father, a heroin addict, does. He says no one in his school knows his father is HIV-positive. If they did, he says, the other kids would discriminate against him. As long as they do not know, they treat him normally.
Despite years of efforts by governments and aid organizations, the stigma of HIV in Asia remains strong. And children, delegates at the Hanoi conference said, are uniquely vulnerable to discrimination because of it.