Hundreds of thousands of children are dying of AIDS in developing countries because they do not have access to treatment readily available elsewhere, U.N. health agencies said on Tuesday.
While paediatric HIV disease has been almost eliminated in high-income countries, where mother-to-child transmission rates have fallen to below 2 percent, it remains “particularly aggressive” in poorer regions, according to a report from the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNAIDS and UNICEF.
Only 11 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries are given drugs to prevent passing the disease to their children during childbirth, and many infants born with HIV are undiagnosed and therefore untreated, the report found.
It said that 380,000 children died of AIDS-related causes last year, mainly infections that could have been prevented.
“Children continue to be the missing face of the AIDS pandemic,” Ann Veneman, the head of UNICEF, said in a statement.
The agencies’ report, which outlined advances in access to HIV treatment, said the number of people getting HIV therapy in poorer countries rose 54 percent last year to 2 million, though another 5 million still lack access to the life-saving drugs.
Just 15 percent of the 780,000 children in need of HIV treatment had access it by the end of 2006, and only 4 percent were given the antibiotic co-trimoxazole, which the WHO recommends for children with HIV and those born to HIV-infected mothers when early diagnosis is impossible.
“A greater effort should be made to follow up HIV-exposed children and to determine the HIV status of all children born to mothers living with HIV/AIDS so that appropriate care and support can be provided,” the report said.
Treatment access problems were found to be most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, home to 25 million AIDS sufferers and 85 percent of all HIV-infected pregnant women.
Children account for 14 percent of those needing therapy in the largely impoverished region but only 6 percent of those receiving it. Some African countries with high HIV burdens, such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe, offer limited treatment for children.
The United Nations agencies said more investment was needed in diagnostic tests to quickly determine whether infants have HIV, and in fixed-dosed paediatric drug formulations that could boost the survival rates of infected young ones.
They also recommended more screening for tuberculosis, which can be lethal to those with HIV, and for sexually-transmitted diseases that can make it easier to catch and spread HIV.