AIDS—Its Tragic Toll on Children
HAVE you seen their pictures? Have you heard or read their stories? If you have, did it send shock waves through you? Could you hold back the tears or keep a lump from coming up in your throat? Does your heart ache for them? Can you still hear the quiet moans of those about to die without being noticed? Even now, can you erase the pathetic scenes of dying infants—two, three, and four in a bed? Most of them were abandoned. Their suffering and dying comes from this horrendous malady now sweeping the world—AIDS!
The reports and live pictures telecast from one European country in February 1990 shocked a viewing audience of tens of millions. Worldwide, more millions read of the tragedy in newspapers and magazines. Time magazine reported: “The sight is sickening and terrifying. In crib after crib lie babies and toddlers who look like old people, their skin shriveled, their skeletal faces bearing the unmistakable mark of approaching death.” “It is worse than anything I have seen,” lamented one doctor. “Manifestly, this is an epidemic transmitted through medical acts.”
How is this so? Unlike most AIDS babies born with the virus from AIDS-infected mothers, these children were not born HIV positive. The tragedy resulted after birth when frail or premature newborns were given blood transfusions in the belief that such would fortify the weak infants—a practice long discredited by the medical profession. “One HIV-positive blood donor could have infected 10, 12 or more children,” said one doctor.
“For the first time in the history of AIDS,” said Dr. Jacques Lebas, president of the Paris-based humanitarian organization Doctors of the World, “we are confronted with childhood AIDS. It’s an epidemic.”
For example, in September 1990, for the first time, WHO (World Health Organization) released startling evidence that revealed the worldwide epidemic of AIDS in children. WHO reported that the virus that causes the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome will probably infect ten million children by the year 2000. “The vast majority of these will have developed Aids and died by the year 2000,” said Dr. Michael Merson, director of the organization’s global program on AIDS. Through the last part of 1990, one third of the 1.2 million estimated cases of full-fledged AIDS are believed to have occurred in children under the age of five.
Is it any wonder that the spread of the AIDS scourge has been called pandemic? By the end of 1992, about four million infants will have been born to HIV-infected mothers. Four out of five children born with the virus develop AIDS by their fifth birthday. Once they have AIDS, they usually die in one or two years, Dr. Merson told a Geneva news conference.
Experts predict that there will be 150,000 AIDS cases in African women alone in 1992 and an additional 130,000 cases in African children. In the United States, up to 20,000 infants to date may have been born to HIV-infected women, WHO reported. The Evening Post of Wellington, New Zealand, reported in its July 12, 1989, edition that an estimated 140,000 of Brazil’s youngsters are carrying the virus. “But activists fear that estimate may be low,” the paper reported. “I believe that this group, if not given special treatment, will become an atomic bomb loose in the city,” said the medical director of the National Foundation for the Welfare of Minors. “It is an extremely serious problem,” lamented a noted Brazilian psychologist.
The Problems Grow
Can anyone be emotionally unmoved by the plight of these innocent victims suffering from this deadly plague? Consider, for example, this report: “At least 50 children have been murdered in central Africa—some by their own parents—because they had Aids, according to the Norwegian Red Cross.” Other African children with AIDS are being driven from their homes by families desperate to erase any links with a disease that has a stigma worse than leprosy, reported the Sunday Star, a newspaper of Johannesburg, South Africa. “In some areas Aids victims and their families are barred from waterholes and churches,” the paper said.
Additional chilling statistics leave no room for complacency. Worldwide reports indict the AIDS pandemic as the direct cause of another tragedy. Millions of children who are not infected with the AIDS virus are destined to become orphans in the 1990’s. Why? Their parents will die from AIDS. WHO estimates that there will be five million AIDS orphans worldwide by 1992. “It’s a deluge starting to happen. And unless we have the vision to plan for foster care, we’ll have to open big orphanages,” said one expert on child care.
“The pain is almost incomprehensible,” said a caseworker, describing one New York family. “The mother is infected, the father is infected, the baby is sick, the parents and baby are going to die, and they will leave a 10-year-old boy who is going to be without any family.”
And, finally, there is this sobering observation by Dr. Ernest Drucker of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “In the aftermath of a parent’s death, the children often find themselves caught in custody battles, shunted from one family member to another while trying to come to terms with their loss and the stigma of AIDS.”
AIDS is rapidly becoming one of the leading causes of death among children and young adults. It is the ninth leading cause of death among children from one to four years of age, and the seventh leading cause among teenagers and young adults under 25. By the early 1990’s, AIDS could become one of the top five leading causes of death, reported The AIDS/HIV Record, September 1989. Yet, reports indicate a worldwide complacency among many potential victims of this dreadful disease. Consider some startling facts in the next article.