Wed, Jul 14, 2004 - Page 6 News List

AIDS orphans bear brunt of disease

FIFTEEN MILLION In addition to possibly suffering the disease themselves, the children often face discrimination, abandonment and responsibility for their siblings

REUTERS , BANGKOK

The AIDS epidemic has robbed 15 million children of one or both parents and reversed a trend toward fewer orphans driven by better health and nutrition, a UN report said yesterday.

With HIV infection rates rising and the incurable disease taking 10 years to kill without treatment, an estimated 18.4 million children will have lost at least one parent by 2010, according to the UNICEF report released at the 15th International AIDS Conference.

"It is a tidal wave of children who have lost one or more of their parents," said Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, the UN children's agency. "Fifteen million globally, close to 12 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone," she said. "It has the possibility of destabilizing societies quite dramatically."

Without the AIDS epidemic, which has already killed 20 million people worldwide and infected 38 million, the numbers of orphans would be falling because of better health care and nutrition. AIDS has reversed the trend.

Much of the AIDS meeting that began on Sunday has been focused on money, improving universal access to life-prolonging drugs and wrangling over whether abstinence or condoms is the best way to prevent new infections.

But children's activists argue that the plight of orphans and vulnerable children is not getting the attention it deserves within the overall AIDS effort.

"In some ways orphans are one of the orphaned issues at this conference," said Joanne Carter, legislative director of RESULTS, an international anti-hunger and anti-poverty group.

"It's clear that what is left in the wake of the AIDS pandemic is these kids. These kids are the futures of their society and they have been largely forgotten by the global community," Carter said.

US Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only member of the US Congress at the week-long meeting, described the orphan crisis as "mindboggling."

"The world cannot stand by and watch this occur," said Lee. She has written legislation to help orphans and vulnerable children which has been passed by the US House of Representatives and is attracting support in the Senate.

In Asia, where the AIDS epidemic began relatively recently and HIV prevalence is still low, the number of orphans has dropped since 1990. But if HIV/AIDS expands, as many experts fear it will, so too will the number of orphans.

More than any other cause of death, AIDS is more likely to deprive children of both parents. They face discrimination because a parent has died of AIDS, abandonment if relatives cannot or will not care for them, and the responsibility of caring for younger siblings.

They also may be infected themselves, and are likely to be deprived of guidance and education and will be more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

The UNICEF report calls for more funding for programs to help families and the community cope with the crisis and to ensure there is education, health care and legislation to protect orphans.

Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a leading medical and humanitarian organization, said treating children with HIV/AIDS was an uphill battle because drugs and diagnostic tests have not been adapted for them.

"We need to pay more attention to them. They are not just small adults. There are specific issues in terms of diagnosis and specific issues in terms of treatment," the MSF's David Wilson told the conference being attended by more than 17,000 people.

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