Aids and a Lost Generation: Children Raising Children

Article excerpt

Ruth Nakabonge crouches on the ground clutching a handful of earth to fling over her father's coffin. She is too distressed to cry, her tiny body contorted by grief as a relative gently strokes her forehead.

Ruth was eight when her father, Samuel, died of Aids in their Ugandan village. She has not just lost a father, she has also been deprived of a childhood, like millions of other children across the continent.

Samuel Nakabonge is not just another Aids statistic. He is a symbol of how the Aids pandemic is still cutting down the breadwinners of Africa in their prime, leaving behind an army of orphans. Girls like his daughter Ruth suddenly find themselves thrust into the role of parent, responsible for the welfare of their siblings.

Samuel lost 10 members of his family to Aids before he succumbed to an opportunistic disease that took his own life, his body wasted from the virus that was once known as "the slims" in his country.

It is easy to see how Aids is responsible for creating a missing generation across Africa, devastating economies, and crippling health sectors as it strikes. Across the continent, 6,500 Africans are dying every day, the equivalent of a village being wiped from the map every 24 hours. A further 9,000 are infected each day by HIV/ Aids, which is the leading cause of death in Africa.

In Uganda, 84 per cent of Aids victims contract the disease through heterosexual contacts. The men go first, followed by their wives. Fourteen per cent of children are infected by mother-to- child transmission. Up to 6.6 per cent of the adult population in Uganda is infected with HIV. If you are an adult male in Uganda suffering from Aids, you are unlikely to live beyond the age of 47.

In Zimbabwe, the population is already struggling to survive an economic crisis and inflation of 1,000 per cent, brought about by the policies of their tyrannical leader, President Robert Mugabe. One in three children in Zimbabwe is now an Aids orphan, and the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs are running out.

In the continent's economic powerhouse, South Africa, 800 to 900 people every day are dying from Aids. The country holds the dubious record of having five million HIV/Aids sufferers: the highest number in the world, an infection rate of 21.5 per cent.

"President Thabo Mbeki and Health Minister Manto Tsha-balala- Msimang have failed to provide unambiguous and clear leadership on Aids," says Mark Haywood of the Treatment Action Campaign, which successfully sued the South African government to roll out antiretro- virals. "South Africa is getting it wrong at the very top."

"They [the leaders] still send out confusing signals doubting the efficacy of ARVs. Some people are now actually scared of treatment. It's a tragedy," Mr Haywood added.

Africa still lags lethally behind the West, which has taken great strides thanks to life-saving antiretroviral drugs. Falling drugs prices and new sources of international funding are needed to help it catch up.

Aids treatment varies from country to country, but also can vary greatly from place to place within a single state, and even within a single city.

Botswana's biggest hospital, the Princess Marina in Gaborone, recorded eight people yesterday who died of HIV-related illnesses. Yet at the Botswana-Baylor Children's Clinical Centre of Excellence, which benefits from Western co-operation in a public-private sector partnership, the chief nurse, Liz Lowenthal, said that no deaths had been recorded at her Gaborone clinic in the past 24 hours.

"We have about 1,400 children receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) through our site. …