In Kenya, as in much of Africa, burgeoning populations of children orphaned by AIDS or infected with HIV are becoming the "invisible face" of the deadly virus. That is according to officials at the U.N. Fund for Children, which is launching a global campaign aimed at helping children infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.
Children often are overlooked in the global fight against AIDS, U.N. officials warned as they announced a global AIDS campaign focusing on the needs of children and halting the spread of HIV from pregnant mothers to their unborn children.
HIV and AIDS have taken a heavy toll on Africa's children. Of the 510,000 children who died of AIDS-related causes last year, nearly 90 percent of them were from sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty appears to be a contributing factor, in the same time period, less than 300 children died of AIDS in high income countries, UNICEF reports.
UNICEF Director for Eastern and Southern Africa Per Engebak says at least 15 million children, the vast majority of them in Africa, have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Many of them, especially girls, are forced to drop out of school and take up adult responsibilities such as working to pay the health costs of an HIV-infected parent and caring for younger siblings.
"Children need to be recognized, they need to be visible in public because children are just as much infected and affected by HIV and AIDS as adults," he said. "We are hoping with this campaign that we are launching today that the international community recognizes the specific needs for children around HIV/AIDS. And, of course, the orphans and the vulnerable children because of their sheer numbers [are] constituting perhaps the biggest challenge that we are confronted with right now."
UNICEF Director Ann Venemen, speaking from U.N. headquarters in New York earlier this week, says the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa is unraveling years of progress for children.
Children from sub-Saharan Africa make up at least 85 percent of the total number of children under 15 infected with HIV. Less than five percent of the HIV positive children in need of AIDS treatment are receiving it. And only one in 10 pregnant HIV positive women have access to drugs that prevent the virus from infecting their children.
Mr. Engebak says African governments and international donors need to step up efforts to help children infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. The U.N. global campaign focuses on providing more drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmissions, improving children's access to antiretroviral drugs, and supporting community services that help children orphaned by AIDS.
On a tour of Kibera, a teeming, tin-shack slum in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya's capital, several U.N. and African Union officials met community leaders who, backed by UNICEF, recently opened a school for children orphaned by AIDS.
The African Union's commissioner for social affairs, Bience Gawanas, says she was encouraged by the community's sense of responsibility and empathy for the orphans, who otherwise could not afford to go to school.
"It is when you visit places like that that really you have got hope. Hope that this fight is not a fight for governments, it is [about] empowering communities," said Ms. Gawanas. "Look at what is happening at that school - 68 kids in one classroom, but it is better than nothing, isn't it? And this is a community effort to accommodate children who are orphaned by HIV and AIDS."
Two U.N. agencies, UNICEF and the UNAIDS, are leading the global campaign to prioritize the $55 billion in expected AIDS funding during the next three years to help AIDS-affected children.