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African Countries Meet to Discuss HIV/AIDS

About 150 participants from 23 West and Central African countries are holding a week-long meeting in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast to discuss the growing problem of HIV/AIDS in the region. The Geneva-based U.N. Children's Fund or UNICEF, wants governments in the region to enact programs to help children orphaned by AIDS.

This is the first time countries in West and Central Africa have held a region-wide conference specifically dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis. Until now, most of the world's attention has focused on the South and Eastern Africa Region, which contains many of the world's most infected populations. UNICEF Spokeswoman, Wivina Belmonte, says the conference wants to highlight what countries in West and Central Africa can do to keep the disease from spreading as dramatically as it has among their southern neighbors.

"It is significant, but they want to contain it," she said. "Many people in southern Africa used to talk about the days when they would look at the explosion of HIV/AIDS in Uganda and say no, not here. It'll never happen here. But, it did. And, West and Central Africa does not want to be caught out in the same position. So, that is why there is this focus."

The conference also is focusing on children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. UNICEF statistics show worldwide, more than 10 million children under age 15 have been orphaned by AIDS. The Agency expects this figure to more than double by 2010. The disease has taken a particularly terrible toll in Africa. For instance, UNICEF reports there are well over one million AIDS orphans in Nigeria, more than 600,000 in the Ivory Coast and a similar number in Zimbabwe. Ms. Belmonte says in all cases, this tragedy is growing. She says this can be seen in the increasing number of child-led households in Africa.

"These are children who have to opt out of school, opt out of any kind of future opportunity because they have to take care of their brothers and sisters who are left behind," she explained. "They have no voice, very little in terms of income, no future in terms of education because they're the first to opt out of school. And, one way that UNICEF is trying to help them is to make sure that the little that they might have, if they have a home, that we make sure that they keep the home."

Ms. Belmonte says one of UNICEF's key aims is to protect those children who have so very little. She notes that the extended family remains the best source of care for orphaned children. But says it needs to be strengthened and secured. UNICEF is calling on governments to take a more assertive role in leading the fight against AIDS and in providing the money needed to help AIDS-infected orphans and to make sure they continue to attend school.