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AIDS Orphans Get New Priority - 2004-07-06

The United Nations estimates that every 14 seconds another child is orphaned by AIDS. Caring for the millions of parentless children around the world is one of the largest - and most pressing - fronts on the global campaign against the deadly virus. There are now at least 14 million children orphaned by AIDS. The majority are in Africa.

In Uganda, Frank and his sister Felista were orphaned when their mother died of an AIDS-related illness in 2001. Now their grandmother takes care of them and six other orphaned grandchildren in a small house in the country.

Frank was nine and his sister seven when Breda Gahan, an Irish humanitarian worker with Concern Worldwide, met them while conducting an AIDS study in Africa.

"I remember distinctly he was just so disillusioned, so upset, that he wouldn't show his face, he literally held an old cloth in front of his face the whole time we were sitting in the household," says Ms. Gahan. "He did not want to make eye contact."

Unfortunately, she says, both of the children also have AIDS and neither is expected to survive much longer.

The AIDS epidemic has forced millions of children into precarious circumstances. Once they are orphaned they are more likely to drop out of school and have to turn to child labor, crime or prostitution for money. As they get older they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors which could see them contracting AIDS themselves, possibly creating yet another generation of orphans.

"The issue with AIDS orphans is both an individual issue for the child and the global issue for the community and the future of countries and populations," says Susan Purdin, the AIDS program coordinator for the New York-based International Rescue Committee.

Africa has been hardest hit by AIDS. In some countries, as much as 10 percent of the total population has been orphaned.

Ms. Purdin says the situation is improving in nations like Uganda, where public campaigns have changed attitudes towards the disease. But in other countries AIDS orphans are still stigmatized within their own communities. Where education is lacking many people believe the children are contagious and could spread the disease.

Without proper support AIDS orphans also suffer from the psychological effects of watching their parents die from the disease. Breda Gahan, with Concern Worldwide:

"The impact on these children that literally see their parents get ill, slowly, become bed ridden, die over maybe 18-24 months, is just unimaginable, its just horrific," says Ms. Gahan. "They just don't know why, why have they been robbed of their parents. Have they done something bad, forever they carry the guilt."

In the past many of the children were sent to orphanages for treatment. But, Ms. Gahan says more recent studies suggest taking the children out of their own villages actually does more harm than good. "Creating orphanages no longer works; it takes children out of their social and cultural environment," she says. "The best thing is to keep children where they belong, where they've got some sort of identity."

The United Nations and other international organizations are also increasing support for public education to make sure AIDS orphans can stay in school. And in African countries, like Zambia and Malawi, programs that provide extra food and money to families that take in AIDS orphans are having a positive impact.

But Ms. Purdin warns that even as the work in Africa is beginning to bear fruit, countries in Asia are lagging far behind in the fight against AIDS. "The risk in Asia is the absolute numbers - if you talk about India and you have a billion people and you have one-percent prevalence you still have 100 million infected people."

In China, the government denied it had an AIDS problem until 2001. And despite a recent surge in government spending to curb the AIDS infection rate, it may be too late to stop an explosion in the number of children orphaned by the disease.

"Even if the epidemic is controlled very quickly there will be like 120,000 to 150,000 orphans in 2010," says Koen Vanormelingen who works for the U.N children's program, UNICEF, in China.

But, unlike Africa, China has better access to resources to provide for the growing number of AIDS orphans. And Mr. Vanormelingen believes helping the children will also pay dividends in the long-term fight against AIDS.

"Beyond being beneficiaries of this process they will be also an investment in the future for making the young people in China aware of the problem and helping get the information out there to change their behavior and get the protection against AIDS," he says.

This is, he says, the key lesson learned from Africa; AIDS orphans are more than just victims, they are also an invaluable resource in the struggle to stop the spread of AIDS.

By 2010, the United Nations estimates there will be nearly 25 million children orphaned by AIDS around the world and more than 100 million infected by the virus that causes AIDS.