The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) has estimated that 18 million children will have lost at least one parent to Aids in sub-Saharan Africa alone by 2010.
In the face of this impending tragedy, Unicef along with UNAIDS and other organisations on Tuesday launched a global campaign - Unite for Children, Unite against Aids - to reach at least 80% of these children, the "missing face" of Aids.
These children are not only missing from global and national policy discussions on HIV/Aids, but also lack access to even the most basic care and prevention services, the agency said in a statement.
"Every minute, a child dies of an Aids-related illness, another becomes infected with HIV and four young people aged 15 to 24 become infected with HIV," said Unicef executive director Ann Veneman and UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot in a joint statement.
In addition, an estimated 15 million children have lost at least one parent because of Aids.
Yet less than 10% of children orphaned and made vulnerable by Aids receive public support or services.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where the impact is greatest, coping systems are stretched to the limit.
"Nearly 25 years into the pandemic, help is reaching less than 10% of the children affected by HIV/Aids, leaving too many children to grow up alone, grow up too fast or not grow up at all," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the launch.
"Simply put, Aids is wreaking havoc on childhood."
The agencies want to give 80%
of patients antiretroviral drugs
Veneman said that in some of the hardest-hit countries the Aids pandemic is "unravelling years of progress for children".
"In the past quarter-century, HIV/Aids has claimed the lives of more than 20 million people and lowered average life expectancy in the hardest-hit countries by as much as 30 years," Veneman said.
"A whole generation has never known a world free of HIV and Aids, yet the magnitude of the problem dwarfs the scale of the response so far."
The global campaign will focus on key areas, including the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, the provision of antiretroviral treatment, prevention and protection and support of children affected by Aids.
By 2010, the campaign aims to:
• Provide 80% of women in need with access to services to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies. Currently less than 10% of women have access to these services. The vast majority of the half-million children under the age of 15 who die from Aids-related illnesses every year contract HIV through mother-to-child transmission.
• Provide antiretroviral treatment and/or cotrimoxazole to 80% of children in need. Less than 5% of HIV-positive children in need of Aids treatment are receiving it, and only 1% of children born to HIV-infected mothers have access to cotrimoxazole, a low-cost antibiotic that can nearly halve child deaths from Aids by fighting off deadly infections.
• Reduce the percentage of young people living with HIV by 25%, in line with agreed international goals. Adolescents and young people age 15 to 24 account for roughly half of all new HIV infections, but the vast majority of young people have no access to the information, skills and services needed to protect themselves from HIV.
Putting children first
According to UNAIDS, $55 billion will be needed over the next three years, $22 billion in 2008 alone, to confront the Aids pandemic.
There is currently a funding gap of at least $18 billion from 2005-2007. Not only does Aids funding need to increase dramatically, but a significant portion should be specifically targeted for children affected by the disease.
Most children with HIV get it
from their mothers
The two organisations welcomed the commitment of a number of governments to prioritise children affected by HIV/Aids by allocating funding to children.
"Aids continues to tear apart families and communities, leaving behind 15 million orphans and robbing countries of their future," said UNAIDS' Piot.
"If countries are to develop, we must put children first. Children must therefore be a major priority when it comes to the way we allocate and use resources."
National leaders participating in events to launch the campaign around the world include the presidents of India, El Salvador, Brazil, Mozambique and Djibouti; the prime ministers of the Netherlands, Ireland and Trinidad and Tobago; and the foreign minister of Australia.