The International Federation has identified the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS as a leading priority. With some 40 million people around the world now living with the virus, according to new UNAIDS figures published this week, its 178 member Red Cross and Crescent Societies plan to mobilize their 100 million members and volunteers to fight the pandemic at the community level, where action is most effective since it touches people directly.
As members of the community working in the community, Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are uniquely placed to help people change their behaviour. HIV/AIDS Federation programmes focus on prevention and information (especially through peer education), access to care, support and treatment, and most recently, on fighting stigma and discrimination.
The International Federation has also signed a formal cooperation agreement with GNP+ - the Global Network of People Living with HIV, in order to battle together the stigmatization of victims of the disease. Agreements are also being signed by groups of National Societies with the regional bureaus of GNP+.
In the UNAIDS "Epidemic Update 2001" , the news was alarming for some European countries. According to the report, the number of HIV infections in Eastern Europe is rising faster than anywhere else in the world. Latest statistics reveal there were more than 75,000 new infections reported in Russia by early November : this is a 15-fold increase in just three years, and experts believe these figures are probably largely underestimated.
In Africa, the continent most affected by HIV/AIDS, at least five million grandparents have gone back to being parents as a result of the pandemic which has seen 12 million children losing one or both parents. "The psychological strain of caring for terminally ill children and coping with their death can be devastating. The stress of taking on the burden of responsibility for orphaned grandchildren is also huge. It is not unusual for grandmothers to be caring for 20 children," said Jennifer Inger, social welfare expert with the Health and Care Department of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Psychological and material support is vital for elderly caregivers, and it is essential that older people are educated about prevention and are given access to health services in order that they may remain healthy while caring for their dying children and looking after their orphaned grandchildren.
In Africa alone, 2.3 million people died in 2001. The problem is so acute that a Red Cross Red Crescent Working Group on Children Made Vulnerable by HIV/AIDS has been established to draw up operational guidelines for programmes whose aim is to keep children in the community and out of institutions, as well as to provide support and recognition for the vital role played by elderly care-givers.
The Red Cross Societies in the Caribbean, the region of the world most affected by the pandemic, after Africa, have been mobilizing their volunteers for several years to fight the spread of the disease. Their efforts have been focused on peer education, through the Red Cross youth networks. Working in collaboration with the regional arm of GNP+, and other organizations fighting AIDS, they will participate in nationwide anti-stigmatization campaigns.
The pandemic is also severely affecting Latin America, where 1.4 million people are infected with HIV. Of these, some 800,000 died in 2001. Unprotected sex and intravenous drug use are fueling the epidemic on the continent, and Red Cross Societies are mobilizing to slow down the spread as much as possible.
In Central America, Red Cross Societies are bringing prevention messages into the schools and through peer education programmes, to enable young people to fight the spread of the virus.
In Asia, according to UNAIDS figures, the figures also continue to climb, and for the first time, the number of newly-infected people has reached one million. In order to help avert a major, generalized epidemic, the Federation is supporting the expansion of the Chinese Red Cross HIV/AIDS programmes. A Regional forum for South Asia is being organized to standardise HIV/AIDS activities and a safe blood donation forum is planned in South Asia.
In some Middle East countries, infection rates are increasing among high-risk groups, and to avoid an epidemic in the region, the Federation is appealing for funds - in its annual appeal for 2002 - to fund programmes on the prevention of communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
Twenty years following the start of the pandemic, millions of young people still know little about how the virus is transmitted. The International Federation is committed to making sure the Red Cross Red Crescent youth participate in the global crusade against the pandemic.