UNAIDS says children under the age of 15 account for one in six AIDS-related
deaths around the world and one in seven new HIV infections. In some countries,
AIDS is the leading cause of death for those under age five. While AIDS drugs
formulated for children are available, the head of a Kenyan orphanage warns
that resistance to them is growing. VOA’s Joe De Capua reports.
Recently, at the Nyumbani orphanage in
Nairobi, a 13-year-old boy named Sammy died. He was infected with HIV, the AIDS
virus, and the drugs available to treat his disease no longer worked. The virus
resisted all of them. To executive director Sister Mary Owens, Sammy’s death
was a warning sign.
our children develop resistance, well, first of all, we’re back to square one," she says.
"And it is a fatal disease again. But also, resistance builds up in our world to
the drugs. They’re ineffective. So, you just think 10 years down the line what
it could be, the scenario could be."
means the drugs, known as anti-retrovirals, or ARVs, are no longer helping
prevent HIV from reproducing and that the immune system is very vulnerable to
opportunistic infections. Some medical
Researchers say a person can build up
resistance to AIDS drugs in just two years, requiring a change in medication.
But there are only so many drugs available with which to make different
Mary says some of the HIV-positive children at Nyumbani are on second or even
third-line drugs because they’ve built up a resistance to their initial treatment.
am not a scientist," she says. "I am a mother, caring for children. These are my children
and I want the best for them."
Mary carries on the work of Nyumbani’s founder, Father Angelo D’Agostino, a
Jesuit priest, surgeon and psychiatrist, who died in late 2006 at age 80.
Nyumbani cares for thousands of children through its home, village and
community programs and many of those children are on anti-retrovirals.
children in Nyumbani home," she says, "were abandoned either because they were left on the
side of the street or in a hospital after the mother delivered or at the police
station or some Good Samaritan realize the parent had died and there was a sick
child there. So, they’re abandoned in the strict sense. The other form of
abandonment: abandonment through rejection. In other words when the parents
died the extended family just disappeared."
often blames stigma and discrimination for a family’s refusal to care for an
help save other children from the fate of Sammy, Sister Mary says Nyumbani
needs a genetic analyzer. She says it could identify which drugs would or would
not be effective in treating a particular child.
shows up whether resistance has developed to the different ARVs," she said. "Now, it’s
crucial to know if resistance is developing because that’s a warning sign about
treatment failure. Ideally, before you ever go on ARVs you should have a
resistance test. Because now, you see, especially in the case of our children,
they can inherit a resistant virus. This virus is very clever. You know that.
a genetic analyzer is expensive - "Over
$50,000. Would anybody like to give me a gift?" she laughs.
each test, she says, costs about $260. Sister Mary Owens is calling on
pharmaceutical companies to make a greater variety of pediatric AIDS drugs to
deal with the growing drug resistance she’s seeing.
organization that operates many children’s AIDS programs in Africa agrees more
must be done to make ARVs available. The Elizabeth Glaser Foundation says even
when pediatric AIDS drugs are in good supply, it can be a challenge to make
sure children get them. It says this is especially true in remote areas, where
it’s difficult to diagnose infants and children with HIV, or where doctors are
reluctant to treat HIV positive children because of a lack of training.
Both Nyumbani and the Glaser Foundation get much of
their funding for AIDS drugs from PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for