Former South African President Nelson Mandela has called for an urgent new effort to help children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Mr. Mandela has established a group to help children who have been left without parents because of the disease.
Mr. Mandela warned that it is children who are paying the highest price of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"It is the effects on children that are probably the most heart-rending and that pose the greatest challenge to our sense of compassion and caring," he said. "Children are the most vulnerable sector of society, they are affected by actions over which they had no control and in which they had no part. It is the cruel reality that keeps one awake at night when pondering all the aspects and implications of the pandemic."
Mr. Mandela was addressing the Africa Leadership Consultation, a high-powered group of people he and his wife Graca Machel have brought together to work at finding ways to help orphans. The group includes Carol Bellamy of UNICEF, South African Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndugane and several African health ministers.
At the start of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa a decade ago, the number of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa was declining from 9 percent. The figure is now at 12 percent of the population under age 18 and is steadily increasing. It is estimated that by the year 2010, some 22 million children in sub-Saharan Africa will have been orphaned by AIDS.
South Africa has been particularly hard hit. Officials estimate that by 2010 AIDS will have taken the parents of 30 percent of South African children.
AIDS researcher Alan Whiteside told the meeting the scale of the problem is daunting. Mr Whiteside, of the University of KwaZulu Natal, emphasized that it is children who are most at risk not only for contracting HIV/AIDS but for having to live with the consequences when their parents die from the disease.
"Orphaned children are more likely to drop out of school we're losing our human capital," he said. "Orphaned children are more depressed, are more likely to have psycho-social problems, orphaned children are more likely to live on the streets, orphaned children are more likely to be exploited because they're forced to work or to sell their bodies, which is the only asset they have."
Mr. Mandela said it is no longer time for discussion but rather time for action to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS.
"We have reached such an advanced stage in the spread of the AIDS pandemic that there is almost no time left for merely feeling, and thinking and talking," he said. "We are in the middle of a war that is wreaking havoc and destruction. Concrete action is what is required every day and every hour."
This year, South Africa's much-loved elder statesman has assumed a much higher public profile than in the period since he retired from active politics and stepped down as president in 1999. Many of his increased charity efforts and public initiatives are now focused on the HIV/AIDS pandemic.