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Can you handle the good news?

New medicines and new understandings mean that kids with HIV can now have a bright future, if we all do what we need to do, writes Malcolm Speed.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2007 22:18 IST

Normally when you read something by me, it relates to cricket. It might be about player discipline, an ICC tournament, relations between our members or the financing of the game. But don’t worry. This isn’t about any of those subjects. It is far more important than any of them and, best of all, it is good news.

If you take a moment to think about children with HIV, I am sure your first thought would be that they face the prospect of very short and miserably bleak lives. I know because that was my first thought too. But I am pleased to say that impression is wrong. New medicines — and new understandings — mean that children with HIV can now have a bright future, if we all do what we need to do.

First, new medicines. Scientists have been working hard, and they have already made great progress. Treatment that can keep children alive and active is now available. The national paediatric HIV/Aids treatment drive, bringing together the Indian government, Unicef and many other organisations, launched in November 2006 by Sonia Gandhi and Bill Clinton, started a new chapter for children with HIV in India. The new medicines, specially designed for children with age and weight appropriate doses, are colour-coded, easy for children to swallow, and even taste nice — encouraging HIV-positive children to take them without fail. When this treatment is supplemented by nutrition, HIV-positive children have a brilliant chance of living long, doing well at school and becoming productive citizens of India. We need to spread the word about these medicines, about how when obtained under the new system they don’t cost parents a single rupee, and ensure that delivery systems are properly funded and effectively monitored, so that all children with HIV can access these life-saving drugs.

Second, new understandings. Children with HIV are just like other children. They have a medical condition, yes, but it is a medical condition that can now be treated. And medical conditions do not define people. Those children affected with this terrible disease have hopes and dreams just like other youngsters and through the advances in medical science they now have the opportunity to fulfil them.

During my time as the CEO of the International Cricket Council, the game’s governing body has forged a partnership with Unicef and Unaids and in the campaign, ‘Unite for Children Unite Against AIDS’. That partnership has given me the opportunity to meet a number of children with HIV. Every time I have met youngsters affected by HIV, they have told me not just about the challenges they face, but also about their hopes for the future. They have told me about how they want to become world champion cricketers, or movie stars, or teachers — or sometimes all three! I am sure we can all remember a time when we used to think like that: our heads were full of dreams and the possibilities seemed endless. Well, now these children are just like that, despite what life has thrown at them by way of a test. Faced with those children’s dreams, it is impossible to feel anything other than admiration for their bravery, joy at their spirit, excitement about their potential, and determination to work with others to ensure their potential is fulfilled.

You cannot get HIV from being friends with a child with HIV; nor from hugging that child; nor from eating together or playing together. Neither can your children. Recent research by the National Aids Control Organisation and Unicef showed that many parents worry that their children will get infected by studying in the same school as children with HIV. Recently, 40 children were thrown out of school in Sangli in Maharashtra and five children were repeatedly sent to home from a school in Kerala just because of this prejudice. We shouldn’t just throw our hands up and say, “Well, it will always be that way”. Because we can change it. What you don’t read about in the newspapers are the times when children with HIV have not been thrown out, because sensitisation of communities, NGOs and the Indian government has worked. We need to expand that work — invest in it, prioritise it and support it.

It has been a privilege to play a part, albeit a small one, in ensuring cricket uses its influence for good and it fills me with pride knowing our great game has driven home the anti-stigma and anti-discrimination messages through a postcards campaign in schools and messages on major television channels with the Indian cricket team. But I am here to tell you that you don’t need to be cricketer or even a cricket administrator like me to change attitudes. It is something that each of us can do. By talking to our friends and colleagues we can overcome prejudice and help ensure that children with HIV get the same opportunities as every other child.

So the news is good, but it could be even better. Because my point is not that children with HIV are now doing well and we can forget them. It is that we are on the right track but those children could be doing a whole lot better if we ensure the new medicines reach them and the new understandings reach the communities (our communities, throughout the world) around them. I am not trying to pretend that challenging prejudice will be easy. On the contrary, it will be hard. But if all of us does a little bit then a lot can get done. Having met such inspiring children, having learnt about the amazing new medicines, and having seen how new understandings can defeat old prejudices, I am no longer filled with despair. I am filled with hope and determination to ensure that children with HIV have the bright future we now know is not only desirable but also now truly achievable. And that is a positive news story, a good news story. Or it will be if we all play our part.

Malcolm Speed is Chief Executive Officer, International Cricket Council