At a hospital in Mali children who are HIV positive are being told about their status at a very young age. Doctors say the new approach helps them get better and protects others from the virus. The program began last December. VOA's Nico Colombant has more from our West Africa bureau in Dakar, with reporting by Julie Vandal at the Gabriel Toure hospital in Bamako.
In a room painted with cartoon characters, children who are HIV positive and their relatives, noisily gather around.
When the group quiets down, doctors hold a question and answer session about their status, in the local Bambara language, using drawings to make the point.
White blood cells, which defend the body from infections, are represented by fighting soldiers.
The children are told about their status in a group, slowly, over the course of several sessions, rather than abruptly and alone.
Doctor Isabelle Traore explains how she breaks the news.
"We tell them we took some of their blood and found a virus. We tell them many people around the world have this virus," she said. "We say, before people used to die from this virus, but now there is a treatment, and some children who were sick, went to university and some of them have their own children. We tell them, it is not because you have a virus, that everything is dark and gloomy. We ask them if they understood. We ask them what they have."
"Some of them say AIDS. We tell them the difference, and that in their current state they do not have AIDS," continued Treore. "We do all this very slowly. And we try to do in a soothing, friendly atmosphere."
Later, the HIV positive children watch Ivorian dances on video together.
Maimouna, 13, says she is like all the other children her age, even though both her parents died of AIDS.
She says now that she knows what she has, she takes her medication more willingly.
She says she wants to be healthy.
Her grandmother says she was relieved by this approach.
She said she was afraid to tell her granddaughter by herself because, she says, in Mali HIV is talked about very badly.
Amadou Toure is also a relative of a patient. His seven-year-old brother has been in the program for two years.
"It is very good that he knows," he says. "He is always asking me for his medication now, because he knows how important it is."
The boy used to dislike the center, but now that he knows about the illness, he likes to play with other children who face the same health challenges.
Pierre Robert, an official with UNICEF Mali who is helping to coordinate the program, says that when the children are informed about HIV, they become more responsible.
"The child becomes responsible for his own health. He is implicated 100 percent. He knows why he needs to always come back to the hospital and get his blood drawn," said Robert. "After that, he knows to be careful when he begins to be sexually active. We have patients who are now teenagers and already sexually active. And the sooner we tell them, the less dramatic it is. There is a 14-year-old girl recently we told her, and she was angry we had not told her sooner."
The children waiting for their relatives to arrive are singing songs.
Doctors say the most important component of the program, may be that HIV positive children can find out sooner that it is possible to live a happy, productive life, even with a chronic infection.