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Amanpour: World fails to save Africa's AIDS orphans

Africa's HIV-infected children also ignored

By Christiane Amanpour
CNN

Editor's note: CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour traveled to Kenya as part of a special documentary, "Where Have All the Parents Gone?," which looks at the millions of AIDS orphans now living on their own.

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CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour at a village in Kenya.

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CNN's 'Eye on Africa'

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ISIOLA, Kenya (CNN) -- AIDS invaded our consciousness 25 years ago. A whole generation around the world has now grown up knowing only a world with AIDS.

We have watched the efforts to find a vaccine, to find drugs to control the disease, to educate people about preventive measures, and to end the stigma of AIDS.

There have been many successes in helping adults with the disease, but when it comes to the children, the world has failed dismally.

Millions and millions of AIDS orphans are the devastating legacy of this epidemic. Africans suffer the most.(View images of those most vulnerable)

According to the United Nations, there are 12 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa alone, and in four short years that number will skyrocket to 18.4 million. That means AIDS orphans will make up 15 to 20 percent of the population in some African countries.

Traveling around the region, we met young children heading entire households, after losing one or both parents.

Because the adults are missing, entire economies are collapsing. There's no one left to plant crops, tend livestock or look after the young. And AIDS is killing the children as well.

According to the United Nations, HIV infection is more aggressive in children less than 18 months old than in adults. In the absence of any treatment up to 50 percent of HIV-infected children die by their second birthday.

In Africa, less than 5 percent of HIV-positive children who need treatment have access to it. And every day, another 1,800 children are infected with HIV, mostly at birth or from their mother's milk.

In Europe or America, this is almost unheard of because there is effective treatment to stop pregnant mothers from passing on the virus to their newborns. But in Africa, there is little access to this life-saving prenatal therapy. Furthermore, only 10 percent of pregnant women in Africa have access to basic treatment that could half the rate of transmission of HIV to their newborns.

"It's another grotesque double standard," said Stephen Lewis, the U.N. AIDS envoy to Africa.

'It's everybody's fault'

Ninety percent of all HIV-positive children under 15 are infected mainly through mother-to-child transmission, according to UNICEF's global figures. Special pediatric AIDS drugs have only been made for children in the last two years.

We asked Dr. Chris Ouma, UNICEF's AIDS specialist in Kenya, why children have gotten such a raw deal.

"I think it's everybody's fault really," he said. "We were slow on the science. We did not speak out for them. Companies did not see the incentive to invest in drugs for children as there's no one to pay. And all this has now resulted in an unacceptable death [rate]."

He added, "I think now as technology brings out superior drugs, things are starting to change. It's 10 years too late, but at least something is being done now."

Indeed Kenya is one of the countries that has made a significant dent in AIDS prevalence and treatment. But there still is much more to do. There are currently one million AIDS orphans in Kenya alone.

UNICEF reports that around the world, there are about 2.3 million children under 15 living with HIV. Two million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa, or 90 percent of the world's HIV-infected children.

Grandmothers increasingly raising orphans

Our journey took us from Isiola and the rural tribes in northern Kenya to Kibera just outside Nairobi. Kibera is the world's largest slum, where 50,000 AIDS orphans scratch out a living.

There we came across the amazing phenomenon of African grandmothers -- a whole generation of elderly women now looking after their grandchildren, after the mothers and fathers died of AIDS. Without them, these vulnerable children would be dead, or turn to a young life of crime and prostitution.

In Isiola, where Kenya's paved road to Ethiopia and Somalia ends, the incidence of HIV is almost double the national average, and it's due to the convergence of truck routes and tribal traditions.

The drought and famine that recently hit this part of Kenya exacerbates the AIDS and health crises. Tribesmen told us the appalling story of sending their wives out for prostitution, in order to afford food. But along with the food, they bring AIDS back to their tribe and their village.

Motor bikes get drugs to remote areas

However, all is not bleak. In the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro on Masai tribal lands, a team of local doctors and community health workers is bringing 21st century medical care to rural Africa.

American philanthropist Anne Lurie, who is also a pediatric nurse, has planned and paid for the AID Village Clinic here, along with its sophisticated medical equipment and highly trained Kenyan doctors.

For the Masai villagers, all the treatment is free.

What makes this clinic truly remarkable, though, is the outreach. Doctors don't just sit and wait for patients, they go out and find them, treat them, and make regular follow-up calls.

The outreach project is the brainchild of two British dirt bikers, Barry and Andrea Coleman, who realized that a transport network was the missing link.

"The entire continent of Africa is more or less grounded when it comes to health outreach. Which is a pretty big problem when you think of the effort that goes into sending drugs, sending health care expertise and it all doesn't reach the people who need it," said Barry Coleman.

Without any government help, they've sent hundreds of motor bikes to Africa's wildest places with money they've raised at bike rallies in England. They have also trained the local health workers how to drive and maintain them.

It seems to be making a difference in Africa's medical catastrophe. The Colemans have similar and bigger bike outreach projects in Gambia and Zimbabwe, and doctors there tell them that they are having an effect on reducing the disease and illnesses by getting patients much-needed medicine.

He said more such programs are urgently needed: "People are just dying for absolutely no reason at all."

He told us that the project we saw in the Masai country could be replicated around Africa. With so much money being poured into AIDS research and government coffers, perhaps one solution is to seek the simple effective approach.

It does work. In the heart of rural Africa, we saw one pregnant mother infected with HIV who got the right prenatal drugs and did not pass on the virus to her son. One life saved, one child saved from becoming another African AIDS orphan.

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