Interview with Francesca Merico, co-ordinator of the Caritas children’s letter-writing campaign
How has the situation of children with HIV/AIDS changed over the past two years, since the commencement of the children’s letter-writing campaign?
Recent years have seen progress in the production and distribution of pediatric medicines suitable to treat children living in poor countries and in providing treatment for HIV-positive mothers. 24% fewer children were infected with HIV between 2004 and 2009 and 19 % fewer died during this period. Some African countries have achieved more than 80% of coverage of programs to prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT). Overall, more children living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral therapy in 2009, a total of 354,000.
In addition, advocacy by Caritas and other NGOs, such as Edmund Rice International, has resulted in more attention to the needs of mothers and children living with HIV, especially on the part of the international development agencies by some governments; and by pharmaceutical companies.
How would you assess the effectiveness of the campaign up to this time?
The Campaign is contributing toward the achievement of real changes: pediatric AIDS and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission is a heightened concern for many UN agencies, pharmaceutical companies and governments; more child-friendly medicines to treat HIV are now available at an accessible prices; and more women have gained access to testing and treatment for HIV.
Recently I received a message from an organization working in Zimbabwe speaking about the improvements in testing and availability of medication as a result of our campaign. This fills my heart with joy, since I know that many children in Zimbabwe are benefiting from our advocacy initiatives.
What do you think has been the most significant achievement of the campaign?
When we launched the HAART for children campaign we wanted to create a movement to promote a more effective response to the urgent needs of children living with HIV, HIV/TB co-infection, and of pregnant women living with HIV. We wanted to involve as many people and organizations as possible in order to call – quite forcefully – on governments and on pharmaceutical companies to take action to stop such preventable infections and deaths among children.
For Caritas, it is unjust that, thirty years after the discovery of the HIV virus, 1000 children in poor countries still are being born daily with HIV, while, in rich nations, almost no children are born with such a condition. This means that we have the means to prevent the spread of HIV among children and we are not doing enough to help those at risk in poorer countries. It is equally unjust that more than 800 children die of AIDS-related diseases each day when these deaths could be prevented entirely.
I believe that one of the most significant achievements of this Campaign has been the large and active participation of many children and young people who, in a very creative manner, have helped to raise awareness about mother-to-child transmission of HIV and about the challenges that children living with HIV and/or HIV/TB co-infection are facing in their struggle to gain access to child-friendly testing and medicines.
What has been the response of the pharmaceutical companies to the children’s letters?
I met recently with a former representative of Novartis, a Switzerland-based pharmaceutical company; this person found it hard to believe that we had received 1.500 letters from children around the world. He said that it is believed that behind every single letter there are about 100 people who think the same way but who do not take the time to write to them about their concerns. According to such reasoning, therefore, 1500 letters might actually represent the concern felt by some 150,000 children about their peers living with HIV.
Pharmaceutical companies have been very impressed by the children’s letters and about the passion expressed in such letters. In addition, the letters have helped us to set up a good working relationship with the International Federation of the Pharmaceutical and Manufacturer Association (IFPMA).
What are the major challenges that remain?
Early diagnosis of HIV, medicines for infants living with HIV in poor settings and for children with HIV/TB co-infection, and the need to expand programs for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission are among the major challenges that remain. Furthermore, the cut in funding for AIDS will have a great impact on the right to health of HIV-positive children and mothers.
What would you like to say to schools and students who have participated in the campaign in the past or who might be considering future participation?
Progress has been made, but still too many children are suffering and dying with diseases that are almost entirely preventable. Even today, the large majority of HIV-positive women are not aware of their status, and many of them do not have access to HIV-treatment, care and counseling.
All children and women have the right to timely diagnosis of HIV and TB and should be able to gain access to appropriate treatment and care. We need to keep up the pressure on governments and pharmaceutical companies in order to make this possible.
I am very much thankful to all of you who have participated in the campaign. Your action has motivated other people to act for the right to health of many children living with HIV. Your letters have impressed representatives from pharmaceutical companies, from the World Health Organizations, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNAIDS, representatives of governments in Geneva and many other people around the world.
I count on your creativity to take more action for all those children who are still left behind.