For many children with HIV adoption is a life saver
WHO] Janine (Neen) Weir, activist for HIV-positive children
[WHAT] 200,000 children are dying needlessly each year; ignorance and fear are the killers, not HIV
[HOW]Change the rules to facilitate adoption of HIV children from Asia and Africa
As many as 200,000 children are dying unnecessarily of AIDS each year in Asia and Africa because of the ignorance and stigma surrounding HIV, the virus that causes the illness. Even though HIV is now classified as a manageable chronic illness, these children are being shunned and literally left to die on the street or in orphanages.
Some of these children are being adopted by families in other countries. Without this, they would not survive. Most industrialised nations have removed immigration restrictions on people living with HIV, precisely because the condition is so manageable. Medications are extremely effective; HIV-positive people live long and healthy lives and pose no risk to the general community unless engaged in a small number of hazardous practices - unprotected sex and sharing needles and syringes when injecting drugs.
Australia, though, is one of only a few Western nations - Canada and New Zealand are others - that still have immigration barriers against HIV-positive people. A waiver does exist in certain circumstances, but it is devilishly difficult to organise. Families here who want to adopt an HIV-positive child are unable to do so unless they go through a long, elaborate process - or somehow circumvent the bureaucratic and legal barriers.
Today's guest in The Zone is determined to change that. Neen Weir is the founder of SuperKidsGlobal, a web-based initiative to help educate people about HIV and bring attention to these children, often overlooked for adoption. A recent interdepartmental report to the federal government found an ''exceptionally low'' number of overseas childen with special needs are adopted by families here in Australia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he wants to make it ''much, much easier'' to adopt such children, but Weir says there are few if any signs such long overdue change will be coming anytime soon.
She argues that given HIV infection has long ceased to be the killer it was in the early 1980s after AIDS emerged globally, Australia's restrictions are a breach of human rights and will inevitably be removed, as they were in the US by President Barack Obama in 2009.
She says the pressure on our government to change the rules is augmented by the fact that nations throughout Europe do not block people living with HIV. ''It's a lack of understanding and a 1980s view of this disease that still sits in our policies and that's preventing these children being guaranteed entry into our country.
''It is so frustrating to be so helpless and to see that the future of a child is in the hands of what is sometimes a frustratingly poor bureaucracy where government policy is being played with no real understanding of the impact on the children.
''A lack of leadership like this is, I would say, almost akin to child abuse and they are not helping families in Australia who are keen to care for these children.''
A video statement by Weir and the transcript of our discussion can be found at theage.com.au/federal-politics/the-zone. She will be online for an hour from midday to respond to questions and comments, which can be submitted from this morning.
Weir became an advocate for the inter-country adoption of HIV-positive children almost accidentally. She and her husband have three adopted children who were born in South Korea. Weir was approached in 2009 by a woman who was seeking to bring in an HIV-positive child and wanted advice. ''She was an expat bringing home a little girl who had been adopted from an African country and who was HIV-positive. And for the first time I realised that my normal procedures in helping these families was blocked. There was a big stop sign up and it was the immigration process. Even when that child was formally adopted by an Australian she had to have an HIV test before being allowed to immigrate.
''The stop sign was out because she tested HIV-positive. We had to work with her for nearly two years to get that little girl processed, and she was effectively already an Australian. I was shocked that in 2009 we were so prejudiced. Here was this little girl that nearly missed out on coming into Australia and who is going to be an amazing, contributing citizen in Australia. It is a total breach of human rights. Without adoption this little girl would have died in her country of birth.''
The absurdity of the situation is underscored by the fact that parents of HIV-positive children in Australia do not have to tell schools the student has the virus. ''The reason they do not have to disclose is because there is no risk. Those children are not putting other children at risk when they are mixing with them. You will not get it sharing a sippy drink. You will not get it playing in a normal living or social environment. You will not get it on the sporting field. You will not get it if an HIV child bites your child. There is no risk in a normal school environment or social environment.''
HIV dies extremely quickly when exposed to air, and there are very few ways it can be transmitted. Aside from unsafe sex and the sharing of syringes, transmission can really only occur through mother-child infection, an unscreened blood transfusion or unsterilised needles in tattoo parlours. Weir says there has never been in a case of infection from one child to another in an Australian school.
Weir's push for a change to the immigration rules and for public education comes as Melbourne this week hosts the 20th International AIDS conference. The need to improve the education effort is highlighted by figures released last week showing HIV diagnoses in Australia have hit a 20-year high. It is estimated that perhaps as many as one in seven HIV-positive people are unaware they have the virus. The annual HIV Surveillance report by the University of NSW's Kirby Institute showed a 70 per cent increase in the number of diagnoses last year to 1235 people. More than two thirds of the transmissions were through unprotected sex between men. Only two per cent were through the sharing of needles. Over the past decade, only about one case a year of mother-child transmission has been recorded.
Weir argues that the cost of the medication for the small number of HIV-positive children that would be adopted in Australia were the rules changed would be minimal and would, anyway, be more than offset by the broader community benefits associated with a widespread understanding that HIV is now a manageable chronic condition. ''We have no really good public education system in this context at the moment. As part of this project, I hope to change that and deepen the understanding of HIV amongst young people so that we don't just better support those children in our schools - but we provide great prevention education as well. Our young people must understand that they must have safe sex and that they must not share needles - and, guess what, we will have these new generations who will not be transmitting HIV to each other. The net savings to the community of that sort of education will far outweigh any cost of bringing in an HIV-positive child.''
SuperKidsGlobal is about education here and internationally. Weir believes that by getting people in Asia and Africa to understand that HIV need not be a death sentence, she can help save children on a case-by-case basis. The official estimate is that there are 3.5 million HIV-positive children globally, but the number is probably significantly higher because in many places in Asia and Africa, no such statistics are compiled.
''In some countries kids are literally left in cupboards to die when they are HIV-positive. And it is not that the people who are the care givers in these orphanages are barbaric. It is that they honestly believe that HIV equals death.
''We can see behavioural change through education. We can get these kids registered for treatment and ultimately we can get them put in the queue for international adoption.''
Weir is producing a philanthropically funded documentary, Positive Heartache, as part of SuperKidsGlobal. Set for release next year, the film will tell the story of two children, one from Asia and one from Africa, whose lives were saved by inter-country adoption. ''The documentary reflects on the lives of HIV orphans and how they are often treated like modern-day lepers. They are discarded by the community and family and friends and left to die.''
Should you wish to support Weir's efforts, or even seek to adopt an HIV-positive child, she urges that you contact her through the SuperKidsGlobal website or facebook page.
''Countries in Asia and Africa need to know that when they put these kids in the queue for Australian adoptive families they are not going to be turned back. The only way they can know that that is not going to happen is if the Australian government removes the HIV health test for immigration entry for internationally adopted kids.''