HIV/AIDS Epidemic : A Growing 
Threat to Children

The 1997 UNAIDS report, entitled Children Living in a World with AIDS, documented the increasingly dramatic situation of millions of children worldwide who are living under threat from the HIV/AIDS epidemic.   

  • Every day, 1000 children become infected with HIV 

  • Over one million children under the age of 15 are living with the virus and suffering the physical and psychological consequences of infection

  • Over nine million children are estimated to have lost their mothers to AIDS 

Since the beginning of the epidemic, over two million HIV-positive children have been born to HIV-positive mothers, and hundreds of thousands of children have acquired HIV from blood transfusions and through sex or drug use.   

"AIDS is the most recognized disease in the world today," said UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot in 1997.  "But the disastrous impact it is having on children has not been given enough attention.  If the spread of HIV is not rapidly contained, the gains made in reducing infant and child death rates will be reversed in many countries."   

UNAIDS estimates that by the year 2010, AIDS may increase infant mortality by as much as 75% and under-five child mortality by more than 100% in the countries hardest hit by the epidemic. 

Children Living with HIV 

According to the report, more children than ever are contracting HIV and there is no sign that the infection rate is slowing.  In 1996 about 400,000 children worldwide under the age of 15 years became infected with HIV.  Around 90% of these children acquired the virus from their HIV-positive mothers, whether before or during birth or through breast-feeding. 

Women of child-bearing age make up an ever-increasing proportion of people with HIV worldwide - today, AIDS kills more women than men in sub-Saharan Africa. UNAIDS says reducing the vulnerability of infants to HIV infection in the long term means increasing women's control over their lives, improving their ability to take decisions about their own reproductive and sexual health, and increasing the knowledge and sense of responsibility of both men and women about HIV prevention.  It also means increasing women's access to antiviral drug regimes, which can cut the risk of mother-to-child transmission. 

Children who are already infected and sick are in a grave situation, especially in poorer countries that have been unable to benefit from recent advances in antiviral therapy.  In these countries, even inexpensive medicines to treat HIV-related illnesses and reduce suffering are often unavailable.  More than 20% of HIV-positive children in Europe are still alive at the age of ten; by contrast, in Zambia nearly 50% of HIV-positive children die by the age of two. 

Other Effects on Children 

Children are not only infected by HIV; they are also affected.  Children living in communities struck by AIDS feel its impact as their parents and teachers become infected, as health and social services are stretched beyond their limits, and as their families take in other children who have been orphaned by the epidemic.  In all countries, families and the traditional safety net of the extended family are coming under increasing pressure - a recent survey of social care in seven countries showed that by the age of eight, 60% of children born to HIV-positive mothers lived in alternative care.  When an HIV diagnosis occurs in the family, often the household suffers disproportionately from stigma, isolation and impoverishment.  The HIV/AIDS epidemic has also made sexual abuse of children and child prostitution more dangerous than ever.  The belief that children are less likely to be infected has raised the demands for younger sex workers - recent studies estimate that more than one million children now enter the sex trade every year. 

A Window of Hope 

But if children are an increasing part of the AIDS problem, they are also a critical part of the solution.  The report, which says information and the promotion of children's rights are important keys to reducing risky behaviour, recommends a number of areas in which sustained efforts can improve children's situation.  These include providing sexual health education; expanding both educational and employment opportunities, and strengthening health and social services to families and communities.  "AIDS has changed the world for children," said Peter Piot.  "It is the responsibility of everyone - governments, communities, and individuals - to rise to this new challenge and to bring urgent support to children and their families as they face the uniquely painful realities of life in a world with AIDS." 

World AIDS Campaign 

The publication of the 1997 report also marked the launch of a World AIDS Campaign, through which UNAIDS aims to increase public understanding of the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on children and encourage further action to prevent HIV infection and improve care.   

The campaign promotes: 

  • better understanding of the magnitude and diversity of the impact of HIV/AIDS on children, their families and their communities; 

  • stronger commitment, improved policies and increased action for preventing HIV infection and minimizing the epidemic's impact on children, their families and their communities;  

  • greater understanding of the interaction between children's rights, human rights and HIV/AIDS. 

The campaign is led by UNAIDS and its co-sponsoring organisations: the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank.  Other partners include the Children and AIDS International NGO Network; Francois-Xavier Bagnaud, Centre for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University; Panos; and the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Contact Anne Winter, Manager, Communications and Public Information, 
20 Avenue Appia, 
CH-1211 Geneva 27, 
Tel +41-22/791 4577, +41-79/213 4312 (mobile), fax +41-22/691 4187

e-mail: wintero@unaids.org, web site (http://www.unaids.org).

Originally published in Go Between 65, Au-Sept, 1997