13 million children lose their parents to Aids

CHILDREN ARE the invisible victims of the global Aids epidemic that is turning Africa into a continent of orphans, according to a Unicef report published yesterday to coincide with World Aids Day.

By the end of next year, 13 million children will have lost their mother or both parents to Aids. More than 10 million Aids orphans are under 15 years of age and 95 per cent of them are in Africa. An estimated 16.3 million people have died of Aids since the epidemic began, most in sub- Saharan Africa, most in the prime of life and many already parents. Once HIV has infected one parent it is soon transmitted to the other and the children then face watching their parents die.

The distress and isolation the orphans feel is exacerbated by the stigma that is attached to the illness. Girls, in particular, may be denied their inheritance and property, increasing their vulnerability to unprotected or coercive sex.

Ignorance is one of the greatest risks. In a 1998 survey in Kenya of girls aged 15 to 19, more than one-third could not name a single way to protect themselves from Aids and almost one-third did not know that a healthy looking person could have HIV or Aids.

Girls become infected at a younger age than boys because they are biologically, socially and economically more vulnerable. In Africa, girls aged 15 to 19 are eight times more likely to be infected than boys their own age. By their early twenties HIV-infected women still outnumber men three-fold.

One country that is seen to have made real progress against Aids, Uganda, has yet to see the full impact of the epidemic on its children. By the end of 1997, 1.1 million children under 15 had been orphaned by Aids but this figure is due to grow for at least the next decade, despite a levelling off in new infections, because deaths rise in line with the rise in infections five to ten years ago.

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