A ray of sunshine for Uruguay’s HIV+ children

Publicado: 26 febrero 2004 0:00 CET

A summer camp organized by the Uruguay Red Cross and a non-governmental organization is providing a moment of relief and happiness to children living under double weight of HIV and poverty.

As soon as Karina arrives at the beach, she puts her towel around her like a cloak and stands facing the wind, pretending that she is flying. Karina is seven years old and is one of almost 30 children from poor backgrounds for whom the Uruguay Red Cross and NGO, FRANSIDA, have organized a summer camp in Colonia, in the southwest of the country. The children also share another thing apart from poverty – they are HIV positive or have parents who are. And this camp provides a rare moment of relief for them.

“This is the second year we have organized a camp to create an entertaining space adapted to the children’s needs,” explains Consuelo Ramirez of FRANSIDA. “The kids come from very poor families and for them, this is their only vacation. The most important thing for them is to know that they are coming back next year. This is key for them,” she stresses.

Danilo Geymonat, a Red Cross volunteer of seven years standing thinks that the summer camp helps to maintain the children’s dignity as it allows them to be themselves.

“These children bear a lot of responsibility already. Some of them are already on medication, others have family members who are ill or have died and because they are poor, they are often expected to take care of their siblings or find food for them,” he tells us. “Being here allows them to be themselves - to be kids again, to play the whole day without worrying about anything. It is exciting to see the joy this brings to them and how they enjoy all the activities,” he says, smiling.

The number of children living with HIV/AIDS has increased considerably in Uruguay according to Beatriz Deque, Uruguay Red Cross national director of youth. “This is mainly because of the increase of non-controlled and adolescent pregnancies as well as inadequate prevention measures,” she adds. The average age of women getting pregnant has dropped with the largest number of pregnancies occurring between 16-24 years of age.

To help address this, the Uruguay Red Cross is carrying out youth peer education and prevention activities through workshops, plays and fairs being held in schools, community centres and other institutions. Helping them are other organizations such as FRANSIDA, an association of HIV positive people, ASEPO and the International Community of Women.

“Since Uruguayan society is very conservative, it is very difficult for people living with HIV to create a network as it makes them feel very exposed. For this reason, it is in the Red Cross that they often find a friendly and safe place from which they can do their share to limit the spread of the disease,” explains Beatriz.

Fourteen-year-old Paula knows a lot about that conservative society and the discrimination that exists. Undernourished, in poor health and without any relatives who could take of care her, she was refused entry to any children’s home.

“They wanted us to put her into an old people’s home, to let her die there. But we could not accept that. I threatened to take legal action until she was accepted at a home for girls and now look at her. She has gained 15 kilos, is in better health and is following her treatment. She looks happy,” says Consuelo proudly.

As well as ensuring there is a summer camp each year for the children to attend, the Uruguay Red Cross and FRANSIDA, want to build a home for those children who no longer have families who can take care of them or who have been put into institutions that don’t cater to their needs – either physical or emotional.

“An example is how the kids react in front of food here at the camp. Many of them are used to eating only if there is something and often there is only a little. When they see the food we have here in the camp, some of them eat until they get stomach ache,” says Beatriz.

For Consuelo, the main problem is not HIV itself but poverty and social marginalization.

“Uruguay is not an exception to the fact that women and the poor are being affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The kids are undernourished and in such a condition, even if they have access to medicine, the treatment becomes very difficult. In Uruguay, access to medicines is guaranteed but other basic needs like enough food and social insurance are not covered,” she explains.

Meanwhile, at the camp, the children on treatment get together, compare their tablets and syrups. Some of them even demand a special game as a condition for taking all their tablets. Among them, Karina, who is happy because at school she must take her medication secretly so that the other children do not laugh at her.

“But there is no problem. I can take them calmly,” she says.

Paula also comes with her tablets. “I want to participate. I want to be like you and to take children to places like this where they can play,” she tells one of the Uruguay Red Cross volunteers.