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Alicia Keys Gives Back to Kids Affected by HIV and AIDS

Singer/songwriter and new mom Alicia Keys tells WebMD what drives her to travel the world to help children, plus how you can help!
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Keys: 'To Have to Deal with All These Things' continued...

When a pharmaceutical company began making a generic version of ARVs in 2003 for just $500 annually -- the original patented drugs tallied $11,000 per year, an astronomical figure for all but the world's wealthiest citizens -- they knew mass distribution had finally become feasible.

"Leigh said to me: 'I think I can find a way to engage the public and provide these medicines,'" Keys recalls. "So I said to her: 'You figure that out, and I'm there!'

"At the time, I didn't have a child" -- Keys was then 22 -- "but I was empathetic to these young people I met [in Africa], so close to my age. It really struck me how I had to pay attention. What if I was 15 going through what these kids are going through, and nobody paid attention? To have to deal with all the things a teenager has to deal with, on top of being the 'parent' and breadwinner, and putting food on the table for younger brothers and sisters who might be 3, or 7, or 10…it wasn't about how impossible it was, but, rather, if I can help one person, five people, 10 people, 100, 200, 100,000 people…that's what's real."

Starting Keep a Child Alive

Keys signed on in 2003 as co-founder of Keep a Child Alive (keepachildalive.org) with Blake and became the organization's public face. To date, KCA has helped an estimated 250,000 AIDS patients and their families, many of them children. The group provides lifesaving medications, urgent-care clinics, follow-up treatment and counseling, much-needed orphanages, and continuing education. They also offer skills training to help the young and widowed learn new trades. Facilities and health care staff are located in Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and India.

The ARVs are key. Laura Guay, MD, vice president of research at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, explains how ARVs work.

"ARVs are combinations of drugs that target different parts of the virus's reproductive cycle," Guay tells WebMD. "Limiting the virus's reproduction is a critical factor in fighting AIDS. However, HIV can mutate and develop resistance to these drugs. So multiple drugs are needed in multiple combinations to manage HIV as a chronic disease, one that a person can live with as long as the drugs are accessible."

Among the biggest challenges for KCA and other organizations administering ARVs, Guay adds, are accessibility along with monitoring viral loads to detect the amount of HIV in the bloodstream. "In Africa, critical resources and tools are simply not there. So the general principle is to choose groups of drugs that are most likely to treat most of the population with minimal side effects -- and that are also cost-effective."

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