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World AIDS Day: The Plight of AIDS Orphans - 2003-11-27

On this World AIDS Day at least 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS. While scientists continue their search for a vaccine, they say it’s still years away. Many developing countries are without the latest medicines and the virus continues to spread. Among the most affected by the pandemic are the children, the AIDS orphans.

Dr. Angela Wakhweya of Uganda says she takes HIV/AIDS very personally. Like many others in Sub-Saharan Africa, it has robbed her of loved ones.

"I have seen my cousins, my brothers, my friends and colleagues get infected and die of HIV/AIDS. And I’ve taken it on personally that it’s not about statistics. It is a problem that’s close to my heart and I believe that nobody can say that they are immune to it. So, I decided to get involved both from a policy perspective as well from the design of programs perspective. And that’s why I joined Save the Children."

She joined Save the Children in September as an adviser, bringing first-hand experience.

"I worked as a doctor in Uganda at a mission’s hospital at the height of the epidemic in Uganda in the early 1990’s, seeing 60 percent of the ward with AIDS patients. And felt totally inadequate as a medical doctor. That is a public health issue. This is a public policy issue. I need to go further upstream to help these children, to help these people affected by HIV/AIDS," she says.

UN health agencies estimate there are at least 14-million children worldwide who have lost one or both parents to the disease. They project that within 15 years there’ll be as many as 40 million AIDS orphans. However, some NGO’s say the number will be much, much higher.

"Africa is burning right now. Ninety percent of orphans due to HIV/AIDS reside in sub-Saharan Africa and most of them are concentrated around the eastern and southern African region. And that’s particularly why Save the Children has concentrated its resources and technical input to Mozambique, which is near South Africa, to Malawi and Uganda, as well as Ethiopia," she says.

Extended families have absorbed many of the AIDS orphans. But of late there are signs that these families are under stress and even breaking down. Dr. Wakhweya says one sign that an extended family is breaking down is when elderly grandparents begin caring for the children.

"Typically the siblings of the person who is sick and dying are the one’s who absorb the children. And so, if you have an elderly grandmother taking on grandchildren, then that means there are no siblings of the deceased to take care of the children. And that is not a good sign. And that has happened in countries where the epidemic has matured, mainly in southern Africa, in places like Zimbabwe and Zambia."

The Save the Children adviser says HIV/AIDS is a children’s issue, and children are the future.

"We are 22 years into the epidemic. We are 11 years, 12 years into the orphans epidemic, meaning that the orphans came on 10 years after the parents got the infection and started dying. And so, we are 10 years actually too late."

Dr. Wakhweya says Save the Children helps AIDS orphans in several ways. For instance, it supports families and communities to ensure children stay in school and remain healthy. The support includes loaning small amounts of money to mothers – called micro-financing - to help them become self-sufficient. And to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS among young people, it sponsors youth programs and trains peer educators about HIV prevention.

Nonetheless, she says, “It’s a huge issue now for children.” She tells the international community “it will take much, much more than what’s on the table right now.”