Student lends hand to African orphans born HIV positive

By Gene Bukhman

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Last summer, UA biochemistry junior Joe Holmgren worked at Nyumbani orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, serving children born to HIV-positive mothers.

In East Africa, AIDS orphans top UNICEF's list of "children in extremely difficult circumstances," joined by those endangered in armed conflict and natural disasters.

Holmgren said Nyumbani, which means "home" in Swahili, houses a maximum of 25 infants and preschoolers, serving as a hospice for the dying and a temporary school for those awaiting adoption.

Although all the infants test positive for HIV when they enter the orphanage, Holmgren said three out of four will test negative after 18 to 24 months, once their maternal antibodies have cleared.

Holmgren said the orphans came to Nyumbani from crowded hospitals or from families afraid of neighborhood reaction to AIDS babies.

While the number of AIDS cases in Kenya continues to mount, doubling every six to nine months according to the Nairobi paper, The People, the local response has lagged due to fear-laden perceptions and a depressed economy.

Elizabeth A. Preble, a UNICEF researcher, predicts AIDS, transmitted primarily between heterosexuals in Africa, will leave 8.5 percent of children in 10 East African countries motherless by the year 2000.

While extended family networks have kept orphanages rare in most East African countries, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has created a flood of motherless children demanding assistance, Preble said.

She said International Monetary Fund austerity programs have forced governments to reduce social spending, leaving the burden of AIDS orphans with private facilities.

"Most of the children at Nyumbani would have ended up on the street if it wasn't for the orphanage," Holmgren said.

Holmgren said Nyumbani, begun by Father D'Agostino, a Jesuit physician, remains critically underfunded despite daily airline-announcement drives.

The orphanage, short on staff and supplies, must ration hospital trips and rely on antibiotics to treat opportunistic infections, since they cannot afford AZT, he said.

"The staff was spread so thin. I spent more time with these kids than almost anyone else. We played board games. I taught English. . Kids need an adult influence."

While homes like Nyumbani often remain the only hope for AIDS orphans, Holmgren said, "It's just a drop in the bucket."

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