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US-Caritas meeting on pediatric AIDS calls for justice in health care

14. October 2009

    Catholic News Service
    By Cindy Wooden
    Catholic News Service

    ROME (CNS) -- A conference on creating partnerships between government and
    faith-based organizations to fight HIV and AIDS, particularly among
    children, turned into something of a rally for a more just global
    distribution of wealth, health and technology.
    Sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and Caritas Internationalis,
    the Oct. 14-16 conference brought together dozens of Catholic religious and
    lay organizations providing care to people with AIDS, along with
    representatives from governments, the United Nations and some of the world's
    largest pharmaceutical houses.

    The fact that "800 children in Africa die every day from AIDS-related
    illnesses" is "a terrible tragedy, but it is also a scandal," said
    Lesley-Anne Knight, secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis, the
    Vatican-based umbrella organization for Catholic charities.

    It is a scandal "because we can do something about it," Knight said.
    Reliable tests exist for knowing whether a pregnant woman is HIV-positive,
    therapies exist for drastically reducing her chances of transmitting the
    virus to her baby and tests exist for determining if an infant has the virus
    and needs treatment, she said.

    But in the poorer countries of the world, too many mothers go untested and
    too few children receive special pediatric AIDS drugs if they get any
    treatment at all, she said.

    Miguel H. Diaz, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, opened the conference by
    invoking the example of the newly canonized St. Damien of Molokai, who not
    only provided spiritual care for people with leprosy, or Hansen's disease,
    but also provided medical care and built homes for them.

    The ambassador said the conference could help participants "further Father
    Damien's work of compassion and assistance to vulnerable people."

    A partnership between the U.S. government and Catholic organizations is
    essential, he said, since "the United States is the largest donor of global
    aid (and) the church is the world's largest aid-delivery organization."

    Dr. Giuseppe Profiti, president of the Vatican-related Bambino Gesu
    Children's Hospital in Rome, told the conference that HIV and AIDS is "a
    global pediatric catastrophe," with 2 million children living with the
    virus, 370,000 children newly infected each year, and 270,000 dying each
    year of AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses -- almost all of them in the world's
    poorer countries.

    While good works are important, Profiti said Catholics have to ask
    themselves, "Why is that which is easy to access in rich countries
    impossible to access in poor countries?"

    "Solidarity is not sufficient if it does not lead us to change our system of
    development aid," which seems to be providing enough aid to assuage Western
    consciences without giving developing countries a real possibility of
    achieving health and a decent living standard, he said.

    Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, told conference participants
    that "nothing could be more noble" than saving mothers and their babies.

    While coordinating the anti-AIDS programs of the various United Nations
    agencies and building partnerships with local prevention and treatment
    programs are a key part of Sidibe's job, he also campaigns for universal
    access to HIV testing and AIDS treatment.

    "Universal access is about social justice. It's about dealing with the
    underlying causes of inequalities," Sidibe told the conference. "Alongside
    practical acts of compassion and service, a passion for justice for the poor
    is something close to your hearts."

    When only 28 percent of pregnant women around the world are tested for HIV,
    he said, "how can we protect them, how can we prevent transmission to their
    babies, if we cannot reach them with an inexpensive test?"

    Where HIV testing is used and mothers are treated before delivery, he said,
    the number of babies born HIV-positive is extremely low, so with an
    expansion of testing and treatment "in a few years we can consign to history
    the heartbreak of babies born infected."

    "Ending the era of children born with HIV is an exciting possibility,"
    Sibide said, while "failure would be an injustice of our own doing."

    Representatives from the pharmaceutical houses GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott
    Laboratories and Eli Lilly and Company emphasized their researchers'
    progress in improving AIDS tests and drugs and their programs for providing
    the material, free or at no profit, to the world's poorer countries.

    But members of the audience who work with people with AIDS demanded more,
    and they particularly urged the drug companies to vastly expand access to
    liquid antiretroviral drugs for children. In too many cases, speakers said,
    if children with AIDS receive any treatment, it consists of crushed up adult
    pills, which frequently results in the underdosing that leads to resistance
    or the overdosing that leads to toxicity.

    Dr. Deborah Birx, director of the U.S. Global AIDS Program at the Centers
    for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, affirmed President Barack
    Obama's commitment to funding anti-AIDS projects and offered examples of
    where and how U.S.-funded programs are succeeding in curbing the
    mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

    While many of the conference participants gratefully acknowledged support
    received from the U.S. program, they also shared concrete problems they say
    the program does not address.

    For example, a member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary said their program
    gets AIDS test kits from the program for free, but sometimes cannot afford
    to buy fuel for the truck to get the blood samples to the laboratory. And,
    she said, the program provides antiretroviral drugs for people with AIDS,
    but has no provision for funding the food patients need to survive.

The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is a broad international network of churches and Christian organizations cooperating in advocacy on food and HIV and AIDS. The Alliance is based in Geneva, Switzerland. For more information, see http://www.e-alliance.ch/

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