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The Cursed Children of Addis Abba

The true story about diseases and the kids in Ethiopia they're killing.
The AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia is among the worst in the world. In Ethiopia there are 353 new cases of AIDS/ HIV being diagnosed per day. Around 30% of those new infections are found at birth. With this tremendous increase in new diagnoses come the increase in death. The estimated number of deaths in Ethiopia per day is 368 with females accounting for over 55% of those deaths. Due to Ethiopia's economic poverty, the AIDS epidemic is only projected to get worse.

Virtually all of these children have lost both parents, most to AIDS. Malaria, yellow fever and especially TB are fatal illnesses here, too. The children's grandparents have also died or are too poor and sick to care for the children; the same is true of their aunts and uncles, their neighbors and teachers. But no single one of these children has been isolated by tragedy: being orphaned is one of the common experiences of their generation. Ethiopia has one of the world's largest populations infected with H.I.V. and AIDS. The number of AIDS orphans in Ethiopia is estimated at a million, most of whom end up living on the streets.

''This is the most devastating pandemic to sweep the earth for many centuries,'' says Dr. Mark Rosenberg, executive director of the Atlanta-based Task Force for Child Survival and Development. He compares the moral imperative to stop the epidemic in Africa, Asia and South America to the era of the Holocaust and imagines that future generations will ask, ''What did you do to help?''

The orphans are not confined to the cities. In small farming towns hundreds of miles outside of Addis Ababa, children rush cars, offering flip-flops, bars of soap, packages of tissue or tree branches heavy with nuts. Those with nothing to sell offer labor: they will wash your windshield or watch your car for you if you park it. Some of these children are, at very young ages, the sole wage earner for their families. Orphaned in the countryside, they have migrated to the villages and towns where they have become squatters, trying to feed themselves and their younger siblings in alley dwellings improvised from scrap lumber or cloth or plastic. ''Almost without exception, children orphaned by AIDS are marginalized, stigmatized, malnourished, uneducated and psychologically damaged,'' Carol Bellamy, executive director of Unicef, said last month in Namibia. ''They are affected by actions over which they have no control and in which they had no part. They deal with the most trauma, face the most dangerous threats and have the least protections. And because of all this, they, too, are very likely to become H.I.V. positive.'' She warned that the growing numbers of AIDS orphans means that the world will see ''an explosion in the number of child prostitutes, children living on the streets and child domestic workers.'' Eight-year-old Mekdalawit, from Dire Dawa, living in Layla House, remembers the days of her parents' deaths: ''My sister Biruktawit is a baby lying on the floor with her feet in the air -- like this. Our older sister throw herself in front of the car and scream and yell that she wants to die if our father is dead. Then our mother becomes so ill that she cannot move from her bed. She cannot eat, and she has sores all over her body, and she loves for us to gently scratch her skin.'' Mekdalawit and Biruktawit's eight older siblings tried to raise them, but they were obliged to leave home each day for school and for jobs. Worried that the youngest two would wander away from the family hut and be lost, the older children warned that monsters would catch and eat little girls if they didn't stay inside. Finally a few of the oldest brought the youngest two to the local authorities, who referred them to the Children, Youth and Family Affairs Department, known as the Children's Commission. It placed them in Layla House. The older sisters tearfully promised to visit, but their village is far from the capital.


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