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AIDS children suffer unnoticed

Maureen Mullen | Monday, September 18, 2006

While African adults afflicted with HIV and AIDS are the subject of much discussion, the children living with those same diseases need a voice too, Dr. Miriam Laker Opwonya of Uganda said in a Sept. 15 lecture.

Opwonya is the Research Coordinator for the Infectious Diseases Institute of Makerere University in Uganda and spoke at last week’s academic forum. This lecture took place in the Hesburgh Center for Peace Studies.

Opwonya began her lecture, which was hosted by the Kellogg Institute’s African Working Group, by saying that though she has worked with both adult and children HIV patients, she has “always had a special interest in the children.”

“I’ve found out that children that don’t have AIDS are lucky children,” Opwonya said. “If they fall sick from malaria they are treated and they are fine in five days … Children with pneumonia are treated and in five days they are OK and go home. Children who get fractures are treated and they are fine and go home, but children with HIV / AIDS are going to be sick everyday and because of that I felt drawn to them.”

The title and theme of Opwonya’s talk was “Who will speak for us?” Though scores of African children suffer from AIDS, it is the adults who get the most attention, she said – similar to the situation when free antiretroviral drugs became available in Uganda three years ago.

At first, said Opwonya, the drugs came in only adult dosages.

“We had to break the tablets up into small pieces, opening up capsules and measuring amounts for children … That is because no one has spoken up for the children,” said Opwonya. “[AIDS] is seen as an adult’s problem and not a child’s problem.”

Opwonya presented her audience with staggering statistics concerning the numbers of African children affected by HIV – like the 89 percent of HIV-infected children in the world living in sub-Saharan Africa, though only 10 percent of the world’s population resides there.

A large part of Opwonya’s talk consisted of the personal stories of several of her AIDS patients. Opwonya told of young children – some no older than 10 – looking after their dying HIV-positive parents. She related specific accounts of the way in which AIDS psychologically damaged certain children.

One father pulled his son out of school because the boy had AIDS and the father saw no reason to pay tuition fees, Opwonya told the audience. She also spoke of families without parents, with several children being cared for by an adolescent sibling.

Abuse was another major topic in Opwonya’s lecture. She cited one case in which daughters were defiled by their HIV-positive father. In another instance, Opwonya told of a girl who died from AIDS because her parents stopped administering the proper drugs to her. Still another of Opwonya’s stories described an HIV-positive child that died simply because the parents could not afford antibiotics when the child fell sick with pneumonia.

The heart-wrenching stories that Opwonya told illustrated the injustices that so many African children experience because of AIDS and because they – the children – are often overlooked.

“It is really important to know that children who are born with HIV can live to grow up,” Opwonya said. “We have a number who are now in university … because they have been looked after well.”

Opwonya also spoke of all that is being done, the many organizations that are helping to change present conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. In Uganda, “orphanages – Nsambya and Sanyu Babies’ Home – are looking after many AIDS orphans,” she said. “We also have what are called SOS villages.”

These villages, she said, hire unmarried single women to head families of orphaned children and become a foster mother to these children.

In concluding her talk, Opwonya spoke of what an individual in her audience might be able to do for the crisis facing African children, cautioning the audience to choose a reputable charity.

“Be a voice for the children. Foster a child, volunteer time. Feed or clothe a child,” she said.