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New Efforts Provide Hope for HIV Positive Youth - 2001-11-30

Despite discouraging news on AIDS in a recent United Nations report, a group of researchers, activists and HIV positive patients in Washington, DC Thursday, said there is hope for the youth of the world. They say the best defenses against the disease are education, government initiative and the search for a vaccine.

The youngest panelist this week at a George Washington University event leading up to World AIDS Day was 12-year-old Ricky Webster who was infected at birth with HIV.

He says there is one thing he hopes for every day.

"Make a cure for HIV, like that, one pill and it's gone. It's blank, gone, no more medicine, don't have to take any medicine anymore, don't have to be drinking water 24 hours a day and nothing else," RIcky says. "But as long as they're making medicine to keep you alive, I won't complain."

Ricky Webster was adopted when he was six-weeks-old, and he has been healthy since starting a steady regimen of medicine.

In rich countries, most patients have access to proper medication. This is not true in the developing world, where activists fight for ways to expand the access to life saving drugs.

Despite this, Richard Koup, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, says he has reason to be positive. He says there have never been as many tracks toward the ultimate goal - developing an AIDS vaccine.

"There are currently at least 80 different clinical trials going on around the world and there are several dozen different products that are being tested so that we're actually starting to get into the pipeline something which will hopefully work," Mr. Koup says.

In the meantime, Mr. Koup says he would like to see more AIDS awareness campaigns geared at children, instead of just adults.

He says schools, media and parents must participate to teach children about the dangers of unprotected sex and drug use with dirty equipment. If you're teaching adults, he says, it is already too late.

On a personal level, an HIV-positive college student at the event, Ben Banks, said social discrimination is one of the hardest realities for HIV patients. He says it is important to be brave enough and tell your friends.

"The hardest things I've had to deal with is actually telling my close friends, the fear of being rejected by them," says Mr. Banks. "It's never actually happened but it's always a burden. I feel that I'm living with the secret and then I tell them and it actually brings us closer together. "

Another panelist was Florence Ngobeni, a 29-year-old AIDS counselor in South Africa, where it is estimated at least one third of today's 15-year-olds will die of AIDS. She has joined other activists in her country in calling on the government to distribute anti-HIV drugs to pregnant HIV-positive women.

"There is still a message of hope if our leaders could put [their] heads together and dedicate their money to the kinds of programs whereby mothers who are pregnant can access drugs like Nevirapine to prevent mother to child transmission," Ms. Ngobeni says.

She speaks from personal experience as she found out she was HIV-positive six years ago, when her newborn child died of AIDS.

But she says she still hopes to be able to have a healthy child one day, even though her friends say she is crazy.

The U.N. report released just before World AIDS Day says HIV/AIDS is growing fast in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe and that many of the newly-infected are children. Globally, there are now 40 million adults and children with either HIV or AIDS.