Sunday, December 1st, was World AIDS Day. In the more than 30 years of the epidemic, great progress has been made in reducing HIV infections among children. However, health officials and support groups say the number is still too high and want much more emphasis placed on pediatric AIDS.
Mary Pat Kieffer keeps track of the number HIV-infected children. It’s her job at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation to help lower that number.
”We have come a long way. The last year we have full data for is, of course, in 2012. It’s estimated that there were 260,000 infants and children infected with HIV during that year. That’s a huge number. 260,000 is way too many. However, it is about half of the number that were infected in 2001at the height of the epidemic,” she said.
Kieffer, who lives in Malawi, is the foundation’s Senior Director of Technical Leadership. She said, “We’ve reduced pediatric infections by 52 percent, but we still have a long way to go to reach our target of having less than 40,000 infections in children by 2015. So, we’re well on the way, but we still have a big challenge.”
That challenge includes access to treatment.
“We have drugs now available for children with HIV, very effective drugs. The problem is is that we’re not able to reach children as well as we can reach adults. I would say less than 30 percent of children who need to be on treatment right now are on treatment. And that compares to around 60 percent for adults,” said Kieffer.
But often the liquid medicine for kids with HIV tastes really bad. Identifying infected children is also a problem.
“They cannot speak for themselves. So you have to depend on the adult. A lot of women don’t realize they have HIV. They don’t realize they’ve infected their child. And the health system in most low-income countries is not set up to follow – what we call – the mother/baby pair. And there’s usually no health record that follows them. There’s no system of continuous care and follow-up in most places.”
Kieffer said stigma is another issue.
“It’s very hard for families to accept that they have HIV or that they’re child may be infected. And I think people are guilty of something very human and that is: wanting to believe that everything will be OK -- and wanting to believe their baby will be fine. And it’s a hard thing for people to come forward and have the baby tested and to put the child on treatment,” she said.
Efforts to stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic are also focusing more on adolescents.
She said, “In our programs for prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission, we often see adolescents who are already pregnant. And these are some of the most vulnerable women that we deal with. They’re very young. They’re sexually active. They’re pregnant. Some of them already have HIV. Some of them were infected at birth and have grown into adolescents. Others are infected through sexual activity. And it doesn’t really matter how they were infected. What matters is that we try to provide the services and the support that they need.”
The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Glaser, who was married to a Hollywood actor, contracted HIV during a blood transfusion in 1981. Two of her children – a son and daughter – were infected at birth. That prompted her to establish - what was then called - the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Glaser and her daughter eventually died from the disease.
The foundation receives much of its funding from PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The foundation has programs in 15 countries.
This year, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that one million babies around the world had been born HIV-free thanks to PEPFAR support. The Glaser foundation says it is responsible for a quarter of that figure, mostly through its prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission programs.