The goal of ending AIDS as a public health threat is achievable if attention is focused on children infected with HIV, participants in a recent conference held by Caritas International emphasized.

Monsignor Robert Vitillo, who has been involved in healthcare issues for 30 years, said there is already progress.

“Thirty years ago, we could only accompany people to a dignified death. There was no treatment,” he told CNA. “At the moment, there is still no cure, but drugs can let you live. Some children have been under treatment for more than 10 years. They get older, they have a future.”   “We need to do more, as only 45 percent of needy people have access to drugs, while the rest of the world is sentenced to death,” said the monsignor, who heads Caritas International’s delegation to the United Nations in Geneva.

He was one of the participants in a conference on AIDS held in Rome April 11-13 at the Vatican Secretariat of State’s Bambino Gesu Pediatric Hospital. The event was organized by Caritas International, the Catholic umbrella organization that includes more than 160 Catholic relief agencies all over the world.   Msgr. Vitillo saw three main reasons why children do not have access to HIV treatment.   “First, the drugs are very expensive: costs are lower now, but in most poor countries the access to treatment costs $100 per year. It is too much for a poor person,” he explained. “More international solidarity is needed.”   He then noted the difficulty in diagnosing AIDS in a young child.

“The tests are expensive, they are not always possible. In addition, drugs for children are not easy to produce, as it is quite complicated to estimate the dosages,” he said.   There is also a stigma about HIV infection.

“There are many mothers who undergo tests for themselves and their children, but they never go to get the results,” Msgr. Vitillo said. “They are scared. They fear that their husband or partner will blame the infection on them.”   Education is the only way to overcome the stigma, the priest said. He thought the Catholic Church can be “a great part” of this process. Bob Kickert, an American who works for Cabrini Ministries in Swaziland, agreed with the importance of education.   “I live in one of the countries where HIV infection has had the biggest impact, though it is a very small country. But the real issue is not access to drugs,” he told CNA.   Kickert saw changing social norms as the priority to help prevent HIV infection.

“There is a lot of poverty, and there is a patriarchal society that does not value women and considers women as men’s property,” he said.   The biggest challenge is to heal and rehabilitate women who are infected by HIV.

Other social practices can also help.

“Even merely keeping girls in school is a strategy to prevent infection,” Kickert said.   Doctor Prince Bosco Kanani, vice president of the Rwandan Healthcare Federation, said he is optimistic about the future.   “We are certain we can end AIDS,” he said. “What happened in Rwanda is a proof of it. We decreased the number of the HIV infected by 50 percent in the last decades, and the mortality rate was reduced by 70 percent. If Rwanda can do it, with a few resources, the goal is really achievable.”

Msgr. Vitillo recommended more networks and collaboration to fight AIDS.

“We have the tools and the possibility to end AIDS as a public threat,” he said.