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US New AIDS Initiative Brings Hope to HIV-Stricken Africans

A pledge by President Bush to significantly boost U.S. spending on AIDS prevention, drugs and care for the infected in a dozen African countries is raising hopes for millions of sufferers on the continent.

On the outskirts of Nairobi, in the town of Karen, there is a house many local residents refer to as the house of tragedy.

It is called Nyumbani. It is a home for nearly a hundred orphaned children, where volunteer doctors, nurses, and social workers try to provide as much care and joy as they can.

But Nyumbani is not just an orphanage, it is a hospice for children who have tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The founder of the hospice, Angelo D'Agostino, says, because costly life-extending anti-retroviral drugs are not readily available, the majority of the children here will probably die of the disease, or related illnesses, within the next few years.

"The population in general is in need of life-prolonging drugs that could bring the death rate of 700-to-800 a day down to probably 200-to-300, or even less," she said.

Currently, about 13 percent of Kenya's 30 million people are HIV positive. That is about the same infection rate as the country had in the mid-1990s. AIDS researchers say, nearly a decade of government-led anti-AIDS campaigns in Kenya appear to have helped stabilize the spread of the virus in the general population.

But the percentage is much higher for young Kenyan women. An estimated 33 percent of women aged 15-to-24 are infected. Consequently, more than 150,000 HIV positive babies are born in the country every year.

Mr. D'Agostino says, many infected mothers abandon their babies at birth. He says, they are afraid people will see the infected babies, realize the mothers have AIDS and make it impossible for the women to function in their communities.

"Every day, there is an increase in the army of orphans who are roaming [around] without any direction or help in the country," he said. "At this point, there are probably one million orphans distributed over the country due to AIDS, and, by the end of five or six years, there will probably be two million."

HIV researcher Ketan Shankardass says many of Africa's AIDS orphans are traumatized, because they are so young when the disease takes their parents.

The mortality rate from AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses is higher in Africa than in other parts of the world. Mr. Shankardass believes poverty is the main reason, especially in Kenya, where more than half the people earn less than a dollar a day.

"It is potentially because of genetic factors, but it is also likely to be due to the fact that there is no access to drugs," he said. "There is no access to clean water. You know, a healthy life style is hard to maintain, when you are living on $1 a day, or less than $1 a day."

President Bush's new $15 billion AIDS initiative, announced on Tuesday, was a surprise to many healthcare workers. The money will be shared among 12 countries in Africa and two in the Caribbean. And some AIDS officials say, the amount is not enough to effectively combat the disease.

But researchers and activists here believe the money coming to Kenya will help fill huge funding gaps that donor nations and individuals have not been able to fill.

Although details about the initiative have not been worked out, and Congress must approve the program, Mr. Shankardass says, he is delighted that Mr. Bush has specifically earmarked funds to purchase AIDS drugs and for orphan care.

"When children have HIV, they don't get told about it a lot of times, because parents don't see the point of telling a child, because there is no help for them available," he said. "People fear exposing themselves as HIV positive, because there is no incentive. I mean, they are going to die anyway. So, I think, with anti-retroviral therapy becoming a lot more accessible, it might actually end up helping reduce the stigma, and might encourage a lot of people to expose themselves as being HIV positive, because there is something to help them out now."

For the moment, the prospect of real help is only a dream at places like Nyumbani. But now, the volunteers say, they have new hope that the day will come that no child has to live at the house of tragedy.