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The effects of HIV/AIDS on early childhood

Today, 34.3 million people in the world live with HIV/AIDS, including 1.3 million children under 15 years of age. The overwhelming majority of these children were born to mothers with HIV, acquiring the virus in the womb, as they are born, or during breastfeeding. With their right to survive, grow and develop threatened from their very beginnings, most of these children will live shortened lives, dying before they are in their teens.

The firestorm rages most ferociously in sub-Saharan Africa, the home of only 10 per cent of the world's population, but of 70 per cent of the world's HIV-infected people, 80 per cent of AIDS deaths and 90 per cent of AIDS orphans. In some African countries, more than 10 per cent of children under 15 are now orphans.

Earlier estimates that more than 13 million children worldwide would lose their mothers or both parents to AIDS by the year 2001 were passed by the end of 1999. And with 5.4 million new HIV infections in the world in 1999 alone, the worst is yet to come.

The epidemic and the economy are negatively intertwined as poverty fuels the AIDS crisis and the disease strips coffers bare. By 2005, the cost of treatment and care related to HIV/AIDS is expected to account for one third of all government health spending in Ethiopia, more than half in Kenya and nearly two thirds in Zimbabwe.

Orphaned by HIV/AIDS

Whether their parents die from AIDS or are too sick with HIV to provide the essentials of care and nurturance, children orphaned by the epidemic are likely to be malnourished, unschooled and aged beyond their years, with their rights to grow and develop fully, violated. A study in Zambia, for instance, reported that 32 per cent of orphans in cities and 68 per cent of orphans in rural areas were not enrolled in school. Children orphaned by AIDS are also at greater risk of becoming HIV infected themselves. Emotionally vulnerable, they are more likely to seek comfort in risky sexual behaviour. Financially desperate, they are more likely to be exploited, often turning to prostitution for survival.

Refusing to give in to despair, many communities have responded to the AIDS crisis with courage and resourcefulness. Recognizing the importance of the first months and years of a child's life, several African countries have shown the way in caring for their youngest children during the epidemic. Early childhood care offers a chance to support the most vulnerable casualties of the AIDS crisis. It is also essential to begin educating children from an early age about how to stay safe and healthy. Knowledge is a child's most potent defence against this deadly disease.