Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HEALTH: Jamaica Reaches Out to AIDS Orphans

Zadie Neufville

KINGSTON, Dec 3 2003 (IPS) - At a time when most six-year-olds were enjoying a carefree life, Gary was the sole care-giver for a mother stricken by AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

The young boy (whose last name was withheld on request) had been looking after his mother for almost a year when three weeks ago his plight came to the attention of Donna-marie Hamilton-Ross, support services co-ordinator for Jamaica Aids Support (JAS), western region.

Jamaica’s west, including the resort town of Montego Bay, has seen the country’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection.

"He had already taken himself off to school when I got to the house," Hamilton-Ross told IPS.

"The path to the house had been made by his feet, the place was overgrown, and there were wasps all over inside the building," she added.

Last week, one of Gary’s grandmothers agreed to look after the boy, but his will not be an easy life – he has been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and has been excluded from school because of his condition.

According to the Ministry of Heath, from January to June this year 5,125 children under the age of 15 had lost a mother or both parents to HIV/AIDS.

Last year an estimated 1,300 children lost one or both parents. With infection rates running at about 1.5 per cent, that means 10,000 to 20,000 Jamaican children are at risk of losing one or both parents to AIDS, the ministry estimates.

Hamilton-Ross, whose JAS is a non-profit non-governmental organisation (NGO) that provides care and counselling for people with HIV/AIDS, says the figures could be much higher. The number of AIDS orphans in the western region exceeds MOH estimates for the island, she adds.

‘Children on the Brink 2002′, a joint report of the United Nations AIDS agency and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated there were 578,000 AIDS orphans in Latin American and the Caribbean in 2001.

It predicts that number will reach 898,000 by 2010.

Kerril McKay had taken care of her father since she was 13 years old. It was then, she said, that her mother told her he had contracted HIV. For the next three years she balanced schoolwork, chores at home and at her father’s house, with being his caregiver.

Kerril’s dad died three years ago. Like so many who have contracted the disease he never told her he was dying from AIDS.

"I believe he thought I would not visit him anymore," she said.

It is not uncommon here for the families of those living with HIV/AIDS to abandon them.

Now 19, Kerril is co-founder of her parish AIDS association and an inspiration to other teens, but the scars from the scorn and discrimination she faced because of her father’s illness are still fresh.

Gary and his mother had been living with relatives after his father’s death from AIDS three years ago. When the family found out about her condition, they were told to leave.

Her one recourse was moving to the house left to the boy by his father. With no one willing to help them, Gary bathed his mother, rubbed lotion on her skin and, because he could not comb it, brushed her hair.

The boy also managed to feed himself and his mother with food he got from neighbours.

In addition to losing their families, the children of AIDS victims are usually impoverished and at risk of abuse and HIV infection, reports Jamaica’s National Aids Committee.

According to a 2002 assessment of orphans and other children living in households affected by HIV/AIDS, many are forced into exploitative and dangerous work, including exchanging sex for money, food, "protection" or shelter.

The report also found that many affected children were involved in crime, had been abused, were out of school, without a home, were drug abusers, depressed or were pregnant.

On Nov. 25, a three-year national "plan of action" was launched with the aim of changing the lives of Gary and others like him. A collaboration between the Government of Jamaica and UNICEF, the plan spans 2003-2006 and is to be used as a guide for local health workers.

Authorities say it will focus on researching the issues faced by children who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS and ultimately should find ways to improve the quality of their lives.

"The virus has turned (children’s) lives upside down, and is robbing them of their childhood," UNICEF representative to Jamaica and the chairman of the U.N. Integrated Theme Group on HIV/AIDS, Bertrand Bainvel, said at the launch.

According to the MOH, HIV/AIDS is also the second leading cause of death among children one to four years old.

Hamilton-Ross says many become infected through breast-feeding, despite a promising intervention programme that in the last six months has cut mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 45 per cent.

"Some doctors tell the mothers they can breast-feed the children because they have nothing else to feed them. Now we have to be supplying milk and formula for the babies to prevent infection," she said.

Hamilton-Ross is also planning a campaign to educate teachers and administrators that refusing or turning out children living with HIV/AIDS is against the law.

Kerril is still hurt when she recalls being told by one woman, "don’t touch me daughter ’cause I don’t want her to catch AIDS".

Gary, who has had to sit through his mother’s seizures alone in the dark, still shivers uncontrollably whenever he hears a siren. It is, Hamilton-Ross says, the memory of an ambulance taking his mother to hospital, and his fear she was going to die.

The new plan recognises the impact of discrimination on the young, and suggests it is one reason why children affected by the disease "get in trouble". It hopes to end the stigma by involving people living with HIV/AIDS, like Kerril, in its programmes.

"I implore us all to become a force for change," Kerril urges. "Help eradicate the stigma and discrimination surrounding AIDS."

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