Johannesburg - “I wish my caregiver could have been more honest with me and told me much sooner.”
These are words Luann Hatane, director at Paediatric-Adolescent Treatment Africa (PATA), often hears whenever she interacts with youngsters who have just found out they are HIV-positive.
It’’s also through these conversations where she’s discovered how prevalent stigma and discrimination around HIV/Aids still is and why some grannies, aunts, uncles, parents and families still find it increasingly hard to leave their homes early in the morning with a sickly child only to return home from a clinic with a dose of medication and a perception of “what will people say?”
It is also tales of mothers struggling to disclose their status to their adolescent children and husbands as well as blaming themselves for sentencing their own children to death.
And because these adults are often not sure where to start, they remain silent.
These scenarios and many others are what Hatane and her team across Africa will discuss alongside doctors, nurses, caregivers and policy makers at this year’s PATA Continental Summit that starts in Joburg on Monday.
Under the theme ‘Towards an Aids -free Africa: Delivering on the frontline’ the three-day conference will discuss and possibly answer one of the toughest questions posed by Unicef in its report published last year which said: “How is it that in 2016 children are dying of AIDS-related causes?”
According to the report, every two minutes an adolescent is infected with HIV.
It also stated that children between the ages of 0 to four living with HIV were at a greater risk of perishing from an AIDS-related disease than any other age group.
Because of these gloomy statistics, Hatane said it was vital parents and caregivers inform children about their status from an early age.
“It is important that engagement with younger children happens much earlier. Many of them sadly may only find out that they are HIV-positive when they are 13 and 14. This can be a lonely and stressful time for them. It is also a critical period where many of these children are going through various changes in their bodies. They need all the support they can get,” she said.
With many having asked what the appropriate age to inform a child of their status, Hatane highlighted there were various ways to ensure children understood the changes to their bodies and for them to be placed on treatment timeously.
“The world has chosen to tell children horrible scary things. Living with HIV is entirely possible. For me we have to make it less scary. Normalise it. The biggest challenge we continue to have 30 years on is stigma and discrimination. If there was no discrimination why would it be difficult for a child to talk about his status and take medication in public.”
She said some of the ways to implement this would be through using different techniques such as storytelling.
“A child who is five needs to be aware of what is happening to his or her body. Yes as they grow older the manner in which adults educate them may differ. More important is that they be placed on treatment.”
While there has been a plethora of conventions and summits around HIV/Aids, Hatane said this summit served to introduce those on the frontlines.
“It is summit that will bring together nurses and caregivers from across Africa under one roof. These are the first people with HIV positive pregnant mothers for the very first time. It these caregivers who look after children which some end up as orphans,” she said.
PATA also has youth advisory panel which has seen youngsters taking charge and educating their peers about HIV and Aids. Most of the panel members are made up of youth who already live positively lives with HIV.
Those who will be present at the Summit include Dr Angela Mushavi of the Ministry of Health and Child Care in Zimbabwe, Dr Shaffiq Essajee, Unicef SA and Dr Nonhlanhla Dlamini who will represent the Department of Health in South Africa among others.
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