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Africa Facing Growing Number of AIDS Orphans - 2002-04-19


In Washington, a key congressional committee held a hearing Wednesday on the growing number of AIDS orphans. It is estimated that within 10 years there will be at least 40 million children worldwide who have lost one or both parents to the disease.

Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, calls sub-Saharan Africa the "epicenter" of the AIDS pandemic. He says 5,000 Africans die each day from the disease, leaving many children behind "who are suffering profoundly."

"Approximately 600,000 African children are getting infected each year with the HIV virus. They were infected through their mothers either when they were born, or when they were breast-fed. They have become orphans or otherwise vulnerable because their parents either have fallen ill or die. These children rarely live past the age of six because they die from an AIDS-related illness or hunger.

Congressman Hyde says some of these children become heads of their households at age eight, while others as young as three are left to roam the streets.

"They suffer from psychological distress, economic hardship, forced withdrawal from school, malnutrition and increased exposure to abuse. If they grow up at all, they grow up poor and uneducated, and they face every kind of abuse imaginable. I am horrified to learn about the rape of infant children by adults in South Africa, who believe a myth that such a transgression is a form of prevention from getting AIDS."

Mr. Hyde says that if nothing is done to help AIDS orphans, enemies of the United States will have a ready supply of terrorist recruits.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, says "even if HIV infections leveled off today, deaths would not level off until 2020." And it says the "proportion of children orphaned by the disease would remain unusually high until at least 2030."

Congressman Tom Lantos says support must not only be given to AIDS orphans, but to the community at large.

"To deal with the problem of orphans and vulnerable children, we must deal with the wider context in which they live," he said. "That means investing in communities, in schools and in clinics, in self-help and income generating projects. In the kind of development that offers food security. It is imperative, Mr. Chairman, that we help families provide the social and economic protection for their children and to create thriving communities where children can flourish and grow."

Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the House Sub-committee on Africa, is also a member of the full International Relations Committee. He used the occasion to call for a greater commitment by African leaders to the fight against AIDS, singling out South Africa.

"The effort on the continent has been spotty, with some governments tackling HIV/AIDS head on. Progress being made in countries where it's being tackled head on. But other countries tragically are doing, in some cases, more harm than good, as we've seen in South Africa," he said.

South Africa is believed to have the highest HIV infection rate in the world. Yet President Thabo Mbeki's administration has questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, and expressed doubts about the safety and effectiveness of drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Since AIDS has devastated much of the primary work force in many countries, the populations are made up more and more of the very young and elderly.

Father Angelo D'agostino, founder of the Nyumbani Orphanage near Nairobi, Kenya, is proposing what he calls a "Village of Hope."

"Begin now by building planned villages comprised of orphans and another very needy but rarely thought of group, the elderly. More concretely, I have planned a Village of Hope, which will house, educate and care for some 600 orphans and 400 elderly," father D'agostino explained.

He says the village would be self-sustaining because the elderly could supervise young workers in dairy and agricultural programs, and educate them about history and culture.

At the congressional hearing, an operator of a hospice in Uganda told the committee the fight against HIV/AIDS is not about numbers and dollars, but about real people with names and faces.