According to the World Health Organization, Department of HIV and AIDS, an estimated 3.4 million children are living with HIV worldwide. Children continue to be exposed to HIV due to the prevalence of HIV infection in women and the lack of healthcare and education related to HIV in many communities.
HIV in women easily finds its way to their infants through mother-to- child transmission. In most cases, children acquire HIV through what would otherwise be preventable means such as during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. The lack of education and healthcare increases the chances of the baby developing HIV because the mother herself may not know she has contracted HIV.
As the baby begins to develop, delays are noticed early on, because of the early effects of living with HIV. Delays in cognitive, physical, and emotional function can be seen in infants with HIV and these children continue to miss developmental milestones. Babies born with HIV a few decades ago were likely to only live until their second birthday because of how progressive HIV can be without medication. Now children can live into adulthood because of the progression of medication and education.
The medication given to these infants at an early age, however, can still result in children at-risk for delayed cognitive and motor functions. The medication can sometimes also have opposite outcomes, some being neurobehavioral, developmental, or early onset dementia in children. The use of multiple drugs that act on different viral targets is known as highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). HAART decreases the patient’s total burden of HIV, maintains function of the immune system, and prevents opportunistic infections. The use of HAART Therapy has been found to improve immunological status. neurocognitive functions and neuropsychological functions leading to improved overall health.
Learn for Life Foundation’s (LFL) flagship program, Snehagram in India, provides a quality of life and future for orphaned and vulnerable children infected with HIV. When the parents contract AIDS the children are ostracized, often at a very young age. Snehagram is a residential program that has developed a holistic model over the past seven years to fully address these children’s education, health, psychological and social needs.
Snehagram’s model has successfully demonstrated that children with HIV can overcome some of the cognitive and physical disabilities associated with the virus and the long-term medication required to manage HIV. In December 2018, Learn for Life announced that over 45 of the Snehagram students completed the requirements for their secondary and senior secondary certifications administered by the Government of India. Its quite remarkable considering that illiteracy levels in India are as high as 40% and that over 33% of children who start primary school drop out before the 5th grade in the general population.
LFL and other volunteers have continued to train the children in track and field and other sports. In September 2014, 15 Snehagram kids participated in the Kaveri Trail Marathon and by February 2015 over 30 students participated in the 2015 Auroville Marathon in Pondicherry. In June 2015, two of Sneha’s best athletes, who were both born with HIV, participated in the International Children’s Games in Amsterdam. On March 15th, 2019 the first girl from Snehagram participated in the Jerusalem International Marathon. The Snehagram children have continued this tradition of running and winning meals at marathons in India and internationally and show no signs of slowing down for physical reasons.
The Learn for Life Foundation program at Snehagram has successfully demonstrated that orphaned and vulnerable children born with HIV in a caring environment can indeed overcome the challenges of HIV, perform academically and physically and grow into productive adults. The only real barrier is the stigma associated with HIV. Children with HIV can overcome the challenges. The real question is whether the rest of us can overcome our perception and give them a chance to succeed.