Orphans of AIDS

Times Staff Writer

In 1990, nine years after the AIDS virus was identified, the map showing the worldwide spread of the disease displayed most of Africa in the palest pink. The infection rate among adults was less than 1%. Since then, the colors have deepened faster here than anywhere else on Earth. Southern Africa now is colored a bloody crimson. The infection rate is more than 15%.

The statistics have been repeated so often they cease to shock, even as they soar: 25 million people have died worldwide. Forty million are living with HIV, the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and as many as 14.5 million children have been orphaned by the disease, according to UNAIDS.

The United Nations Development Program said last year that AIDS had caused the biggest reversal in human development ever recorded.

Just as African countries were beginning to make headway on improving quality of life and decreasing mortality in the 1990s, the rising pandemic started to erase many of their gains.

In fact, so sweeping are the repercussions of AIDS that some have asked whether the smaller states in southern Africa might simply collapse under the strain.

If all that is difficult to measure, the cost to families and individuals is incalculable.

Funerals have replaced weddings as the main family ceremony. People struggle to buy medicine. They borrow to pay for funerals. Breadwinners die and families plunge into poverty and hunger. Many families are made up of orphans and grandparents.

Unprotected orphans are exploited sexually or economically, often by their relatives. A myth persists in parts of Africa that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS, a factor in the upsurge of rapes of babies and girls. No one can calculate the cost. Southern Africa can only try to endure the successive waves of infection, illness and death.