12-Year-Old With HIV Applauded at International AIDS Conference

By admin

Originally published on Advocate.com August 05 2008 12:00 AM ET

Keren Dunaway was
5 when her parents used drawings to explain to her that
they both had HIV -- and so did she.

Now the
12-year-old is one of the most prominent AIDS activists in
Latin America, a rarity in a region where few children
are willing to tell their classmates they have HIV for
fear of rejection. She edits a children's magazine on
the virus.

"The boys and
girls who live with HIV are here, and we are growing up
with many goals," Keren said Sunday at the opening of the
17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico City,
where she shared the stage with Mexican president
Felipe Calderon and United
Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

"We want to be
artists, teachers, doctors -- even get married and
have kids.... But achieving these goals will only be
possible when we receive the attention we need, when
we are guaranteed the medicines that we need, when we
are accepted in schools."

Taking several
deep breaths to overcome stage jitters, Keren delivered
what was clearly the star speech of the conference's
inauguration: Audience members repeatedly interrupted
her brief but moving words with loud applause and
whistles, then followed her discourse with a standing
ovation that lasted well after she left the stage.

In an interview
with the Associated Press days before the conference,
Keren talked matter-of-factly about the virus she has had
since birth, flashing a dimpled smile and exposing a
row of braces.

"It's like a
little ball that has little dots, and is inside me, sort
of swimming inside me," she said, curling her fist as she
recalled what her parents explained to her with
drawings long ago.

Keren's openness
about her HIV status comes as the virus's victims grow
increasingly younger.

Worldwide, people
ages 15-24 accounted for 45% of people infected with
HIV in 2007, according to the 2008 U.N. AIDS report.

In Latin America,
55,000 of the nearly 2 million people with the virus
were under 15 years old, the vast majority of them infected
by their mothers. Only 36% of pregnant women in the
region receive medicine to prevent transmission,
although that is an increase of 26% since 2004.

And while more
than 60% of the adults with HIV receive antiretroviral
drugs in Latin America, only about one third of children do.
Experts say less research and funding has been
dedicated to medicine for HIV-positive children, who
require smaller doses and additional medication to offset
the aggressiveness of antiretrovirals.

Even so, children
born with HIV are increasingly looking forward to long
lives.

"There's a whole
new generation of young people that were born with HIV
that are reaching adulthood. It presents very interesting
challenges," said Nils Katsberg, director of Latin America
and the Caribbean for UNICEF, the U.N.'s Children's
Fund.

It won't be easy
encouraging HIV-positive children to speak out in Latin
America, where talking openly about sexuality is often
taboo.

When she first
started school, Keren's classmates refused to play with
her. Speaking out about HIV made all the difference. At 9
she began accompanying her parents -- founders of the
AIDS advocacy group Llaves -- on talks to schools. She
has visited half a dozen countries to share her story.

Last year she
started up Llavecitas, a children's version of
a magazine her parents publish. The Llaves foundation
distributes 10,000 copies every two months across Honduras.

Too often
children with HIV "live in a culture of secrecy," said
Maria Villanueva Medina, a psychologist with Casa de la Sal,
a group that runs an orphanage for children with HIV
in Mexico City.

"They can't talk
about their diagnosis in the school because they can
be kicked out. They can't talk about it in their communities
with their neighbors."

At Casa de la Sal
children are told about the virus around the same age
as Keren was, but few dare to tell their schoolmates even
where they live.

Casa de la Sal is
adapting to a new reality. When it first opened 22
years ago, many of the children died by the time they
reached their teens. Today, the orphanage has not had
a death in eight years. The government provides
antiretrovirals.

Faced with the
challenge of preparing the children for adulthood, the
orphanage eventually began sending them to regular schools
instead of giving classes within the institution.

The hope is that
someday many will be outspoken advocates for their own
cause.

"We need to start
getting young people involved in leadership again in
HIV and AIDS because it's easy to get kind of complacent,"
said Joe Cristina, whose Los Angeles-based Children
Affected by AIDS Foundation helps fund the orphanage.

Keren writes an
upbeat editorial each week. ("I want to congratulate
all the boys and girls who have graduated and got good
grades. Keep it up!!") She is now popular among her
classmates.

She takes singing
and acting lessons, dreams of going to Hollywood, and
breathlessly notes that she shares the same Zodiac sign,
Sagittarius, and favorite color, purple, with her teen
idol, Miley Cyrus.

"Sometimes I have
so much fun that I forget I have this" virus, she
said. (Alexandra Olson, AP)