Helping Ethiopia's Lost Children

Helping Ethiopia's Lost Children
With antiretroviral drugs, "you are giving a kid a chance to lead a relatively normal life," says American pediatrician Philip LaRussa (examining a child at the Addis Ababa orphanage).
Per-anders Pettersson

08/11/2005 AT 10:00 AM EDT

It's a warm April day in Addis Ababa, and 11-year-old Gashaw is thrilled to be playing soccer with a half dozen friends at the AHOPE Orphanage. "I'm the best goalie," she boasts, blocking kick after kick. But just five minutes into the game, the rail-thin girl is too exhausted to continue. She lets loose a rattling cough and, without a word, her concerned playmates call it quits.

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Like most of the other 39 children sheltered by a high wall from the dusty roads of this busy capital of Ethiopia, Gashaw is HIV positive, forced to live in an orphanage because, like as many as 1 million other children in the East African country, her parents have died from AIDS. Gashaw's father succumbed to AIDS-related tuberculosis as she slept by his side when she was 5. "I reached out and touched his arm, and it was cold, his arm was very cold," she says through a translator.

Three years later her mother died while Gashaw was watching cartoons with a friend whose family owned a TV. "Before I went I asked her if she would like a cup of coffee to make her feel better. When I came back I couldn't get the cup of coffee out of her hand and I couldn't get her to wake up," says Gashaw. Since then Gashaw, who is partially deaf because of HIV, has lived at the orphanage with her two brothers. "I want to go to school so I can be a doctor. But I don't know if I will grow old enough to succeed. What will happen to us?"

Until recently Gashaw's question had only one answer. HIV in Ethiopia – which has one of the most dire AIDS epidemics in all of Africa – was a death sentence, especially for a child. But in the last year, the government began dispensing the drugs, known as anti-retroviral "cocktails," that have made HIV more manageable elsewhere since the early '90s. Now a team of doctors from Columbia University, selected by the New York-based Worldwide Orphans Foundation, has begun to teach 40 pediatricians from throughout Ethiopia how to administer the powerful medications to children. "The drugs could change the kids' lives in a matter of days or weeks," says Dr. Marc Foca, pausing between examining sick kids at the orphanage and conducting classroom sessions with the Ethiopian doctors at the United Nations' headquarters in Addis Ababa. "They will be amazed at the results, absolutely amazed."

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