In Hollywood, adult actors are warned not to be upstaged by their child co-stars who nearly universally steal the show. When the setting is the global HIV and AIDS response, however, adults get the lion's share of attention. Shining a brighter spotlight on children would better ensure a happy ending to this particular story. Without doing so, we risk this very vulnerable population being forgotten.
Although great progress has been made, advancements for children in the fight against HIV and AIDS globally continue to lag behind. While even one child suffering is unacceptable, consider that 150,000 children were newly infected with HIV in 2015. In addition, the virus is more virulent in the early stages of life and effective pediatric treatment formulations are significantly behind those developed for adults. Testing is woefully inadequate and only half of the 1.8 million children under the age of 15 living with HIV have access to treatment. The results are devastating - half of all children living with HIV will die before their second birthday.
But those who are infected are not the only ones impacted. Thirty percent of all children born in East and Southern Africa are born into HIV affected families. As of 2013, an estimated 17.7 million children worldwide had lost one or both parents to AIDS. Delays in the development of physical and intellectual abilities can occur even in children who are HIV exposed but uninfected. Emerging evidence suggests that HIV-negative children whose mothers are HIV-positive fare worse than other children and perform less well on cognitive measures.
With the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) taking place right now, it's interesting to note that, in 2011, at this same event, global leaders made a historic commitment to end HIV infections among children by 2015 (known as the Global Plan). With the end of the Global Plan last year came a new deadline, once again set at UNGA, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targeting 2030 as the date by which we will end AIDS as a public health threat. We won't be able to meet this deadline, however, without first reaching all children affected by the epidemic with adequate prevention, treatment, care and support. Without starting and succeeding here, our overall success is put at risk.
But there are encouraging signs on the horizon.
This past summer, at the United Nations High Level Meeting on HIV and AIDS (HLM) and, later, at the AIDS 2016 Conference (AIDS 2016), there was a greater focus placed on children than in previous years. The Political Declaration coming out of the HLM highlighted the need for, among other things, eliminating mother-to-child transmission and increased attention to early child development. The Start Free, Stay Free, AIDS Free initiative, rolled out at AIDS 2016, seeks to further fast track efforts by dramatically reducing the number of children newly infected with HIV to less than 20,000 by 2020 and aggressively increasing the number of children on treatment to 1.6 million by 2018.
It is heartening to see this level of dialogue around children. However, discussions, plans and declarations are only a jumping off point. In order to be more than simply rhetoric, they must be backed by urgent action. We need to hold our governments and ourselves accountable to keeping these commitments. We will not reach our 2030 SDG deadline without ensuring children start life free of HIV and AIDS and that they stay free as they age into adolescence and become healthy adults. This is an absolutely essential milestone on the road to defeating the epidemic.
The gains made thus far are fragile and could well be reversed if we do not put and keep children in the spotlight. We must not let children be upstaged in the global response to HIV and AIDS.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or, officially, "Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development"). The SDGs represent an historic agreement -- a wide-ranging roadmap to sustainability covering 17 goals and 169 targets -- but stakeholders must also be held accountable for their commitments. To see all the posts in the series, visit here.