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AFRICA'S SHAME: HIV positive teens, children dying due to failure to test them

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 20th, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

It's a shameful fact that point to negligence on the part of African health officials. Thousands of teenagers and children in that nation are dying form AIDS as they are unaware of their HIV positive status. As a result, these young people die slow painful deaths that could have been prevented with a timely diagnosis.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A Zimbabwe-based expert on HIV/AIDS, Rashida Ferrand of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has since called for universal testing of children entering health facilities in countries where the disease is prevalent.

In a 2010 survey, HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of hospitalization and in-hospital death among teenagers in the two public hospitals in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.

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Africa has more than three million children living with HIV/AIDS. Of that number, 1.7 million of them are adolescents aged between 10 and 18. The majority do not know they are infected.

Ferrand cites one especially horrifying case, where a 15-year-old boy suffers from swelling of the brain. "His eyes are protruding from the pressure that's built up in his head. It's as serious as that," she said in a telephone interview.

The boy's grandfather would not give permission for him to undergo the recommended medical procedures. He was discharged, against the doctor's advice. "They have taken the child back home. It's highly likely that this child will die," Ferrand says.

Denying a child the right to life-saving medical care is a human rights abuse, Ferrand said.

"If this was in the United Kingdom, we could bring in social services, we could bring in child protection services, and force the guardian to bring this child for treatment," she said. "It's a very difficult and potentially very complex thing to bring up because you cannot approach a community and accuse them of neglect."

Fifteen million African children have lost a parent to HIV/AIDS, according to the United Nations. Those lucky to have extended families are placed in situations where there is no money or time to care for sick children whom they have inherited from relatives.

In one particularly heartbreaking case, a stepfather sent an HIV positive 11-year-old girl to live in a rural area because he felt he could not support her. After her mother died, he married another woman with whom he has three healthy children.

"These are things that are very uncomfortable for communities to address. Nobody wants to say that 'I discriminate against this child because he or she is not my real child,'" Ferrand says.

Ferrand has found that up to 80 percent of older children in Zimbabwe living with HIV are undiagnosed. "Testing being missed is a huge issue in this age group. The vast majority of older children get tested when they present with an AIDS defining illness," she said. "By which time, they are already very immune suppressed."

While half of HIV positive children die before the age of two without treatment, one-third live to the age of 16.

In many countries, the parent or guardian has to give consent for a child under 18 to be tested. This can prove impossible when the parents are working in another country, as is common in southern Africa.

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