The AIDS epidemic reached 30 this year and though there has been a huge amount of progress here in the U.S., the story in Africa is a vastly different one. On the continent, women and children are the main victims of the disease with the fastest growth of infection rate now among women and youth. Over 22 million are affected across Africa.
When you see the face of HIV/AIDs in countries like Ethiopia, it is often through the eyes of a child, like the kids I met on a trip to the “transportation corridor” between Addis Ababa, the capital, and the trade hub of Awassa. Here, HIV/AIDs is spread by truckers who infect or are infected by sex workers who in turn infect partners and wives. Parents have died in the thousands, leaving children with grandparents or often as head of the house at the young ages of 11 or 12. Save the Children works in the towns along the highway to keep kids in their communities and provide support, such as access to food, school and extra help that kids without parents desperately need. This empowers communities to take care of their own children who have been devastated by the disease.
I visited with a soccer team made up of 10 and 11 year old boys, all of whom had lost at least one parent to AIDs. One little boy sat and told me how, just a year ago, his Dad never came home one day after being sick. Over the next 12 months, he watched his Mom also die of the disease. After that, some women from the village came to help him and his three sisters, bringing them to the center in the neighboring town for help, every day. He can now go back to school and keep learning, thanks to the support of the center and the men and women who work there, who are trained and supported by Save the Children. He told me his soccer coach was the one who really helped him the most because he “made me believe I would be OK.”
President George W. Bush started the funding of many of the programs like the one we run in Ethiopia through PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). But that significant support is now at risk. The foreign aid budget is under attack on all sides and programs like these for kids are at risk of big cuts - cuts that frankly won’t do anything at all to reduce the deficit but instead, negatively impact thousands of communities in Africa. These communities are working hard to help their own children but without support from programs like PEPFAR, they run the risk of running out of funds…and time.
While AIDs has essentially been reduced to a “managed” disease in the US, it continues to kill many in Africa and, tragically, to affect millions of children. Thirty years on, though the stories in the U.S. are much more hopeful, we can’t forget that the devastating impact of this disease is still felt in many parts of the world we don’t see – and sadly, felt most by children like the little boy I met in Ethiopia with no parents. I know we can do better. We have to do better.