SCMP Friday, December 8, 2000


Easing the Aids burden

Of all the tragic Aids stories coming to light as the disease spreads across the world, many of the most poignant involve children born HIV positive. Today, there are 12 such cases in Hong Kong, but sadly there are likely to be many more in the future.
One of the features of this insidious disease is that it can take years before it becomes active in the child of infected parents, and doctors working in the field believe that the identified cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Women are routinely tested for rubella and hepatitis during pregnancy, but not for the Aids virus. Therefore only one third of all HIV-infected mothers have been detected before the birth of their children. Aids workers estimate that unless compulsory screening is introduced quickly between three and six babies will be born with HIV each year.
The cost of caring for each of these is $800,000 annually, and until a cure is found they will need a lifetime of costly medication. That imposes a heavy burden on the institutions which treat them, and doctors are calling for a central fund to be established so that undue strain is not put on individual budgets, perhaps leading to some hospitals being reluctant to take on cases.
If mothers are diagnosed in the early weeks of pregnancy, they can be given drugs that greatly reduce the risk of the unborn child becoming infected. The bill for a screening programme would be less than $1 million per year, which is a trifling sum in comparison to the cost to the community of years of treatment to growing numbers of infected children.
The time to act is now, when Aids is spreading most quickly among the heterosexual community, and many women are being infected by their husbands.
If, as Aids Concern believes, the number of HIV cases in the SAR is underestimated due to a reluctance of people to be screened, the situation is grave indeed. Any victim of this terrible disease has to cope with rejection and stigma as well as physical effects; but infected children have to deal with all those problems from birth. That is too great a cost for any child, especially when it can so often be avoided.