Though children are still less likely than adults to get HIV treatment, the number of kids contracting the virus has dropped considerably.
According to a new UNICEF report, 1.1 million HIV infections among children in low- and middle-income countries were averted between 2005 and 2013. The humanitarian group attributes the decline to the rise in pregnant women with HIV getting treatment to prevent mother-to-child transmission.
“If we can avert 1.1 million new HIV infections in children, we can protect every child from HIV –- but only if we reach every child,” Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, said in a statement. “We must close the gap, and invest more in reaching every mother, every newborn, every child and every adolescent with HIV prevention and treatment programmes that can save and improve their lives.”
The sharpest declines occurred in eight African countries, including Malawi, which saw a 67 percent drop in new cases.
As of 2012, more than 900,000 pregnant women living with HIV globally were receiving antiretroviral prophylaxis or treatment, according to the UN.
But even when such treatments are available, oftentimes the pervasive stigma that’s still associated with the disease keeps pregnant women from seeking help.
Connie, for example, witnessed her three children die in the ‘80s from what she suspected was HIV. But she said she didn’t have the “courage” at the time to find out if that had been the cause.
She and her husband eventually both tested positive for the disease, and Connie has since devoted her life to counseling people in her community in Zambia about getting tested and navigating treatment options.
Two years ago, she gave birth to a healthy, HIV-negative boy, named Lubona.
While the decline in new cases in children is certainly a boon, kids still face overwhelming risks.
For one, the global goal of reducing new HIV infections in children by 90 percent by 2015 is still out of reach, according to UNICEF.
In low- and middle-income countries, more adults are getting HIV treatment than kids are. Last year, 37 percent of adults received treatment, compared with 23 percent of children.
But while the number of children contracting the disease is on the decline, the rates jump once they hit their teen years.
The second-leading cause of death among adolescents worldwide is AIDS. This demographic is the only one that hasn’t seen a decline is AIDS-related deaths since 2005, according to UNICEF.
“Adolescents are, in many ways, victims of our own unprecedented successes with treatment and survival,” Craig McClure, associate director of programs and chief of HIV/AIDS at UNICEF, wrote in a blog for HuffPost.
While there has been substantial success in preventing mother-to-child transmission and treating kids who are born with HIV, groups are struggling to keep tabs on these children once they hit adolescence.
According to McClure, children with HIV “grow out of” the established programs that focus on prevention and cater to young children. Many kids haven't been informed of their statuses and some just want to stop seeking treatment so that they can fit in and feel “normal.”
“These sorts of realities make it obvious that medication is not enough to fully treat HIV, and that other aspects of a child's life must be considered,” McClure wrote. "Adolescents are still very much children and they are still very much in need of advocates as they enter an age of experimentation, questioning, interdependence, or worse, an increase risk of exposure to sexual violence.”