Orphaned by AIDS

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Orphaned by AIDS


By: Gideon Mendel

Date: June 16, 2004

Source: Corbis

About the Photographer: Gideon Mendel is a South African-born freelance photographer who has been published in most international magazines. He has won World Press Photo awards and received the prestigious Eugene Smith grant for his work on AIDS in Africa. This photograph is part of the collection at Corbis, a worldwide provider of visual content materials to advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, new media organizations, newspapers, and producers.


Millions of children have been orphaned in Africa as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. When parents and other family members succumb to the disease, grandparents, older siblings, foster families, or orphanages raise the children. In some cases, however, AIDS orphans are left to fend for themselves, living on the streets. The children hawk sandals, bars of soap, rolls of tissue, and other items on street corners, often offering their labor if they have no goods to sell. AIDS orphans are found throughout the world, but eight out of ten of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa.

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, and typically develops into acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), a disease that destroys the immune system and ultimately kills the patient. Approximately 2.7 million people in sub-Saharan Africa acquire HIV each year. The disease is sexually transmitted, but can also be spread through blood-to-blood contact. In Swaziland, a small country in the southern part of Africa, 33.4 percent of the adult (age eighteen to forty-nine) population has HIV/AIDS, the highest rate in Africa. In the mid-1990s, the life expectancy for people born in Swaziland was fifty-one years. AIDS had reduced it to 39.4 years by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Most of those who die are young adults between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine, the segment of society that typically provides the labor force.

With no family safety net, AIDS orphans often suffer from poor health, psychological distress, and are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Many have HIV/AIDS themselves. Because there are so many of them, community care is often their only option. A variety of charities and international agencies such as World Vision and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), care for AIDS orphans, as do many African churches. Despite such assistance, however, there are not enough funds to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic and provide the care that both patients and orphans need.

A small number of adoption agencies in the United States, Europe, Australia, and other countries work with African governments to arrange for healthy AIDS orphans (those who do not have HIV/AIDS) to be adopted by families in industrialized countries. These children are often put in special orphanages to await placement. Although some do end up in new families overseas, the number is not large enough to curb the social problems facing AIDS orphans.



See primary source image.


The HIV/AIDS epidemic is increasing already high poverty levels throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports that households caring for orphans earn thirty-one percent less income than others. The number of deaths from HIV/AIDS has depleted human resources, weakening the education system as teachers die, reducing agricultural productivity, and straining industrial sectors.

Over fifty-five percent of HIV/AIDS victims are female, putting rural households headed by women at an even higher risk of poverty, as women often have less access to treatment, less education, and fewer opportunities to find work. These social challenges are expected to become more severe as the rate of HIV/AIDS rises.

Many international organizations and other bilateral initiatives, such as George W. Bush's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), work with African governments, communities, and families to help reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and mitigate the epidemic's medical, social, and economic effects. These organizations teach people how to avoid HIV through the proper use of birth control, staying faithful to one partner, and abstaining from sexual activity. In addition, groups such as the Global Fund make retroviral drugs, which are widely available to HIV/AIDS patients in developed countries, accessible to people in sub-Saharan Africa.



Foster, Geoff, Carol Levine, and John G. Williamson, eds. A Generation at Risk: The Global Impact of HIV/AIDS on Orphans and Vulnerable Children. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Guest, Emma. Children of AIDS: Africa's Orphan Crisis. London: Pluto Press, 2003.

Hunter, Susan S. Black Death: AIDS in Africa. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Subbarao, Kalanidhi, and Dian Coury. Reaching Out to Africa's Orphans: A Framework for Public Action (Africa Region Human Development Series). Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2004.


Karon, Tony. "AIDS Orphan's Preventable Death Challenges Those Left Behind." Time. (June 1, 2001).

Kristof, Nicholas, D. "A Plague of Orphans and Lonely Grandmothers." New York Times. (May 30 2006): A19.

Web sites

UNAIDS: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS〈http://www.unaids.org/en/〉 (accessed June 24, 2006).