AIDS orphans reaches one million mark

The number of AIDS orphans in Ethiopia has reached the one million mark, according to the ministry of health, placing an even greater strain on the country's already stretched social services.

Ethiopia has the third largest HIV-positive population in the world. Only India and South Africa have a greater number. "Tackling AIDS is the most serious problem that Ethiopia now faces," ministry of health spokesperson Amsale Yelma told IRIN.

"The situation is very severe with all the associated social and economic problems that follow. We now have around one million AIDS orphans. It places a burden not only on the health system and families, but also has a severe impact on industry because it affects the workforce," Amsale said.

She told IRIN that the Ethiopian government needed international help to deal with the crisis. The World Bank has already given a US $59 million loan to the government to help tackle the crisis. Other agencies are pouring in funds to help with health care and education although they have been urged to do more.

UNICEF is one of the organisations trying to help with the growing number of AIDS orphans.

Mirgissa Kaba, the officer in charge of UNICEF's HIV programme said: "This country is facing a severe situation. AIDS orphans usually come from very poor families and face the usual problems associated with that.

"They often find themselves on the streets without shelter and do not have food. There are inadequate services for these children - including health care, school fees and materials and orphanages - in part due to a lack of information on the specific families and children affected.

"Consequently," she added, "the numbers of street children is likely to increase as affected youth search for alternative means for survival."

Many fear that girls forced onto the streets are particularly at risk, with few opportunities existing outside of the commercial sex industry, and the dangers of exposure to HIV. Kaba said one of UNICEF's priority areas was to provide information to young people.

According to official figures released last year, the number of orphans was 750,000. As yet no figures exist on the number of children between the ages of five and fourteen who have contracted the virus. The data estimates that the number of orphans will reach 2.1 million by 2014.

Current statistics estimate that 7.3 percent of the adult population (in the 15 to 49 age group) is now living with the virus. The current population of Ethiopia is estimated to be 65 million - one of the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yelma said that the ministry of health had been urging families to help orphans. She said that Ethiopia's culture of extended families proved to be one of the most practical mechanisms in tackling the impact of the epidemic.

But she stressed that the problem should not just be left to the government or aid organisations: "This is a problem that faces everyone in the country."