Children & AIDS - The Facts:
1,000 children a day are infected with HIV
2.5 million children are currently living with HIV/AIDS
16.6 million children have been orphaned by this disease.
280,000 children died of HIV/AIDS in 2008
3 and a half years ago, I came face to face with this disease for the first time. We were in Ethiopia, picking up Chicken Little, and we went to visit an orphanage for only HIV+ children, AHOPE for Children. At the time, HIV+ children were not allowed to be adopted, so they wanted to keep the children in a separate place, so they would not experience the pain of constantly seeing their friends going home to new families, and not have false hope of someday doing that themselves. Now that is not true, and more and more of these unbelievable children are getting a home and a family of their own. Also, at the time, AHOPE was hospice, as none of the children were getting the medication that would save their life. Now that is not true as well - since 2006 the children there have been receiving the ARV's and they are living.
Those two hours that we spent there that week were some of the most moving moments of my life. AMP and I walked up to that blue tin gate, with a couple packs of stickers, and some donations. We left an hour later, crying. Not because of the sadness of the children, but because of the complete "normalness" of the children we had just met. They wanted to be held, they wanted to show us their four new bikes someone had given them, they all wanted to play with the stickers we had brought, and the sunglasses we were wearing and to tell us about their school, and their friend, and.... I just sobbed when I left, the one and only time I cried in Ethiopia. Those kids gave the daunting numbers and statistics I had always heard, a face and name. That was "B..'s" or "E's" story - Now I knew some of the over 16 million children affected by HIV/AIDS. And once you know them, and know how very normal and wonderful they are, it is something you can not just push aside as "not my problem".
So, here are more facts about "our problem". This is an entirely preventable disease, if condoms are used, people don't share needles, and mothers that are HIV+ get access to treatment for childbirth. Once contracted, HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence like it once was. HIV is now listed a chronic illness, not a terminal one like it was before the introduction of the ARV drug cocktail in 1996. HIV/AIDS is a more manageable disease then diabetes, except that people with diabetes don't have to deal with the horrible social stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
What can we do? We can advocate and educate everyone we know, so that the stigma goes away, just like the death sentence associated with the HIV+ diagnosis disappeared. We can give money to help support those 16.6 million children dealing with the intense repercussions of losing both a parent, and possibly their own health to HIV/AIDS. We can hope and pray for the imminent vaccine, and all the advancements in HIV/AIDS care. And most importantly, we can let one of the individuals with this disease into our hearts and our homes - to be our friends and family. They need us for support, for acceptance and for love.
Today is World AIDS Day - and I am reminded of one of the most stirring calls to action I have ever read:
"I believe that this could very well be looked back on as the sin of our generation. I look at my parents and ask, where were they during the civil rights movement? I look at my grandparents and ask, what were they doing when the holocaust in Europe was occurring with regard to the Jews, and why didn't they speak up? And when we think of our great, great, great-grandparents, we think how could they have sat by and allowed slavery to exist? And I believe that our children and their children, 40 or 50 years from now, are going to ask me, what did you do while 40 million children became orphans in Africa?"
Rich Stearns, President of World Vision, U.S.