Battling HIV to Save Orphans
August 08, 2009, —
Catholic Relief Services helps approximately 650,000 orphans and vulnerable children around the world. Based in Arusha, Tanzania, Dr. Dorothy Brewster-Lee oversees several programs for children in six countries: Rwanda, Tanzania,
Kenya, Haiti, Botswana and Zambia. Funded by CRS donors and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the programs provide support to
children and families in which at least one parent has contracted or died from the
disease. On a recent trip to CRS headquarters in Baltimore, the 30-year health
veteran gave us an inside look at the challenges that these children face when their
parents get sick or die.
- Kai Hill:
- What are the factors that have led to such a high and growing number of orphans in Africa?
- Dorothy Brewster-Lee:
In sub-Saharan Africa, a large portion of HIV infections are
found among married couples who have children. You have to also take into
account that many of these couples didn't have access to antiretroviral drugs,
which weren't readily available in parts of the world until 2005.
There's also the widespread problem of not having adequate
numbers of people being tested for HIV, especially in the rural areas. The
level of stigma and discrimination in a given community continues to play a
part in whether a husband tells his wife or vice versa that he or she is
infected. But if neither mother nor father is tested or treated, both parents are
likely to die from AIDS, leaving the children to fend for themselves or be
cared for by relatives.
- Has the availability of antiretroviral drugs helped parents live longer?
Many of the orphans we serve were orphans before treatment
was available. However, given the influx of drug treatment, we've seen a
significant increase of parents living longer, which is a major accomplishment.
But we still face huge numbers of people who don't know they are positive, so
the orphan population is expected to grow.
Also, most adults who have died of what we strongly believe was
AIDS were not tested. Once they've died, few people know or reveal the true
cause. This remains a challenge in places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV
and AIDS can be mistaken for common illnesses such as malaria, severe diarrheal
disease or tuberculosis. Also, children often are not told the reason why their
mother or father has fallen ill. So if parents are not treated, we have a
case with a long history of illness that by all accounts is symptomatic of HIV
For CRS, working to reduce stigma by educating communities
is a first line of defense in that it removes barriers to testing and
treatment. In many communities, stigma is not what it used to be. The fact that
people can receive treatment and live longer has made people live more openly
- Most children who are born HIV-positive or contract HIV in infancy
die within the first five or so years of life if they are not treated. What
kinds of challenges do you face in getting more children tested and treated?
Pediatric AIDS is a big problem because kids who may be HIV-positive
are not being identified and treated. A major obstacle is the difficulty of
making a diagnosis of HIV in babies under 18 months of age. The diagnosis is
difficult because before 18 months of age, conventional and relatively
inexpensive "rapid tests" used with adults will falsely identify HIV
antibodies from the mother in the baby's blood. The only way to test babies
under 18 months of age is through a very expensive, more complex test.
Another barrier remains with parents not wanting to know
their children's status because if it is positive, they feel that it will
expose the family to stigma and discrimination. Oftentimes children turn up chronically
sick in school, where someone will direct them to get tested. With CRS' family-centered
approach, we hope to be more rigorous with testing children whose parent or
parents are on antiretroviral drugs.
- Can you describe what happens to a family once one of the parents fall ill?
The father normally gets sick first. Then Mom has the duty
of taking care of Dad. Her attention to the kids naturally diminishes. The
father is no longer bringing in income, and he can no longer work in the field
or office. The family is spending all of its money now on medication and herbal
remedies for Dad, so it's economically stressing. Then the mother's health
starts to deteriorate, so the weight of taking care of the mother falls on the
oldest girl child, who is also responsible for caring for her younger siblings.
Now the family becomes withdrawn from the community. The
children's education is compromised. The ability to care for others in the household
whose general health may need tending to becomes compromised. The house
typically falls apart because there is no money to buy roofing or other materials.
After the mother and father die, children usually go to a
relative—frequently an aunt, uncle or grandmother. Child-headed households,
where the oldest child assumes the role of the parent, are rare compared to the
number of children who have gone to live with relatives. If there is a good
church, mosque or community group, these families are more readily identified
and enrolled in programs.
But in the worst-case scenario, these families get picked up
late. They may have gone for years without any type of outside support. For
these kids, you will find them in a household with a dying parent. Everything
has been sold in the house, which is leaking, perhaps exposed to the elements,
and in some cases infested with rats or other rodents. At night, children are
sleeping on floors and spending their days trying to find food and jobs instead
of going to school.
Just think of the emotional and spiritual imprint this
situation has on a child. Many of these young children experience more personal
suffering and emotional deprivation before they reach age 10 than most adult
Americans experience in a lifetime. Their lives quickly deteriorate. The mother
who took them to Sunday school is no longer able to. They often question: What
kind of God allows this suffering?
- Explain what happens once these families receive support from CRS and our partner programs.
Well, we don't want to just dump services on them. Our
volunteers and community workers first assess the family's needs to determine where
they might need support, whether it be shelter, education costs, testing,
treatment, child protection, HIV prevention or ways to generate more income.
Once the children are met with services, they are back in
school, doing better socially and academically. Young kids are tested and, if
needed, put into pediatric HIV care. Overall, CRS' aim is to help these
children meet their full potential. We meet their direct needs along with the
needs of their households. That in turn helps make their community a better
place to live. These children belong to the communities in which they live. CRS'
primary aim is to equip families and communities to take care of them.
Kai T. Hill is an associate web producer for CRS. She works at the Baltimore headquarters.