Rays of Hope for Africa's AIDS Children

The Associated Press
Saturday, June 23, 2007; 2:13 PM

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Little Natasha is a giggling, wriggling bundle of mischief. She adores Barney the Dinosaur, claps along to her favorite songs, and throws a typical 3-year-old's temper tantrums.

Natasha, who picked up the AIDS virus in her mother's womb, also suffers from hearing problems, rashes and stomach upsets, and can't play outdoors too often because she easily catches cold.

But she is alive. So very alive.

Natasha's health represents a small but significant victory over an epidemic gripping South Africa and neighboring countries. AIDS drugs are turning what was a certain death sentence for infants and young children into a manageable disease, providing a glimmer of hope on a continent of gloom.

But a long, hard road lies ahead. In Sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 10 percent of infected children are receiving the medication they need. Even in South Africa, which has a relatively advanced AIDS-fighting network, an estimated 5.5 million people are estimated to have the virus, including about 240,000 children, only some 25,000 of whom have had the treatment that saved Natasha.

Last year, an estimated 950 South Africans died each day from AIDS-related diseases and a further 1,400 were infected each day, according to the Medical Research Council. UNAIDS head Peter Piot warned a conference in the coastal city of Durban this month that for every person in the country who started taking AIDS drugs, another five contracted the virus.

And despite the grim statistics and never-ending funerals, many South African men continue to have unprotected sex with multiple partners despite government pleas to change their behavior.

On a continent where poverty, war and lack of education rob children of their futures, AIDS attacks on many fronts. Even children who survive are often orphaned and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Natasha clung to life against the odds. She stood little chance of survival at birth. Doctors referred her to Bowy House, a love-filled home with room for about 15 children.

"She was so thin you could see through her," Lalie Lombaard said with a shudder. Lombaard has cared for dozens of children at the home in Paarl, a town about one hour's drive from Cape Town.

Given the stigma that still surrounds AIDS in Africa, the identities of children are fiercely guarded and their surnames are rarely released. Under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, Natasha has the right to privacy.

She also has the right to life.

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