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Mexico's HIV-positive orphans look to the future

August 5, 2008 | 11:30 am

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Oscar, above, is 10 years old and his favorite subject at school is math. He wants to be a lawyer when he grows up. Oscar also is HIV-positive, and he lost his parents to complications with the virus two years ago.

He lives in a community of children here at La Casa de la Sal (the House of Salt) in Mexico City. All of the 25 children in the home have been orphaned by HIV and have the virus themselves.

An estimated 2,934 children ages 14 and younger have HIV/AIDS in Mexico, according to Mexico’s national center for the Control and Prevention of Aids (CENSIDA) (link to PDF). Those are just the cases that have been detected, and there is a lack of reliable statistics on the issue.

Oscar and his friends are the lucky ones. La Casa, which has been open for 22 years, gives them access to antiretroviral drugs that may allow the children to live long enough to fulfill their ambitions.

The children used to be schooled at the center because their quality of life was so poor, said Victor Cervantes, one of the directors of the home. He and his co-workers never knew how long they would live. Now, because the children are living much longer lives they go to school with other kids.

Oscar says his school friends do not know that he’s HIV positive.

“The only people who know about the children’s HIV status in the school is the director and some of the teachers,” Cervantes explained. The children’s home works with schools, giving talks on prevention to children and their parents.

“Some of the kids may confide in their best friends and their friends may tell other children. When that time comes, we want them to be sensitive,” he said.

Maria Villanueva Medina, who heads up the clinic, which offers counseling to children at La Casa De La Sal as well as families who come to the home for advice, said children with HIV in Mexico are extremely isolated. “They have to live in a secret culture. They can’t talk about their diagnosis in school because they can be taken out of school. They can’t speak in their own communities [because of the stigma].”

Across Latin America, 55,000 of the 1.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS are younger than 15 years old, according to the UNAIDS 2008 Report on the Global Aids epidemic. After Brazil, Mexico has the highest level of HIV positive citizens in the region.

Of the 318,608 adults in Mexico infected with HIV/AIDS, 23% of them are women in their childbearing years. The vast majority –- 90% -– of children who have HIV/AIDS in the developing world are infected through their mothers either in the womb, during childbirth or through breastfeeding.

Oscar and his friends at La Casa De la Sal are part of the agenda for discussion at the 2008 International Aids Conference here in Mexico City this week, where more than 25,000 delegates from around the world are gathering to discuss the global epidemic.

“Children are probably the most invisible population in the fight against AIDS,” said Ana Luisa Escalante, president of La Casa De la Sal at a symposium on the issue last week, according to the News, the English-language newspaper based in Mexico City.

“The voice of activism has been to serve the adult population and there hasn’t been anyone speaking for children,” said Angelica Valenzuela, vice president of programs for the Children Affected by Aids Foundation, which funds La Casa De La Sal and other projects throughout Latin America.

“Governments and communities are doing what they can, but it’s not enough to serve all of the children in Latin America.”

Problems such as access to medicines and a lack of education and awareness mean that children aren’t getting the care that they need, when they need it. La Casa makes sure that the children have access to the medications that they need to survive, medication that their extended families couldn’t afford to pay for themselves.

The children of La Casa De La Sal are looking to their future. When the children received a visit last week from Joe Cristina, who founded the Children Affected by Aids Foundation in 1993 (Cristina has lived with HIV for the last 22 years), they bombarded him with questions about how he got his job and what he studied at college. Oh, and whether he has any pets (he has a white Maltese dog, named Patsy).

Cristina, who has lost two life partners to HIV, told the children: “Don’t give up and lose hope. We can live a full life with HIV.”

He said that he created the foundation in an effort to make the voices of children such as Oscar heard.

“Children need a voice,” he said. “Adults can speak a lot more for themselves than children can.”

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Photo: Oscar, a 10-year-old HIV positive orphan living at La Casa De La Sal. La Casa De La Sal insisted the children wear masks in photos to prevent them from being recognized by schoolmates and other people who do not know about their HIV status. Credit: Deborah Bonello / Los Angeles Times

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