Home | News    Sunday 28 March 2004

Sudanese AIDS orphans tell others about disease


JUBA, Sudan, March 27, 2004 (AP) — Emmanuel Amoko lost his father to AIDS, but he shrugs off the social stigma still attached to the disease in the southern Sudan. The 16-year-old is determined to increase awareness among teenagers about the dangers of AIDS and to help orphans left behind.

Amoko is one of about 250 young people in Juba who have lost one or both parents to AIDS and are now speaking publicly about the disease’s causes and prevention as part of a campaign by the Sudanese government and international groups.

He and his family knew almost nothing of the disease before his father’s death, Amoko says. "But when I knew, I felt I should learn from it," he says.

Amoko did not say how his father contracted AIDS, but he stressed he is not ashamed of the death.

"I am sad that I lost my father, nothing more," says Amoko, who lives with an uncle. His mother lives in another quarter of Juba with her own parents.

Barely two years ago, AIDS was a taboo subject in this part of southern Sudan. Uneducated about the disease, many people believed that if a person was infected, their entire family would fall ill, as would anyone who came in contact with them. So those infected with the virus often kept it a secret.

But initiatives by the government and aid groups like the World Health Organization and UNICEF have opened up discussion. In January, UNICEF and the federal Sudan National AIDS Program began a stepped-up anti-AIDS campaign in Juba focusing on reaching youths.

The government’s focus on Juba seems to be in preparation for a huge population influx expected in the city if peace talks produce an accord to end Sudan’s 21-year civil war between the Islamic government and rebels in the south. The conflict took nearly 2 million lives - most through war-induced famine.

Health Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman said Juba’s population could surge from the current 350,000 to 1 million.

"Most of them will be coming from neighboring countries with a high percentage of HIV/AIDS. The war in the bush is coming to an end, but we will have to lead a new war against this disease," Osman said on a recent visit to Juba.

The Health Ministry says about 2 percent of Sudanese are infected with the AIDS virus, or about 660,000 in the 33 million population. In Juba, where the first case was diagnosed in the early 1980s, experts think the infection rate could be much higher.

Experts say it’s not just Sudan’s proximity to AIDS-stricken countries that raises its risks, but also poor hygiene and a general lack of knowledge about the disease.

Amoko says that in his talks about AIDS to youths, he must mention simple things like not sharing razor blades as well as the transmission of the disease through sex.

"In all my talks with my peers, some listen to my warning ... some do not listen. But I never give up," he says.

Amoko and others in the orphans group wear anti-AIDS T-shirts at community events, and the campaign against the disease has sponsored art and dance competitions for secondary-school students.

The government says it will ensure that AIDS orphans get a high school education, and Joanna Van Gerpen, UNICEF’S representative to Sudan, says that group will keep up its support for the effort to make youth aware of AIDS prevention.

"What is encouraging in all this is that the people of Juba have taken this bold step to invite other counterparts and partners to help them tackle the HIV/AIDS challenges," she says.

In January, Sudan’s first free counseling and testing center for AIDS opened in Juba, sponsored by the government and U.N. agencies. Various testing facilities were already available in Sudan, but usually cost $10 a person - far beyond the means of most Sudanese.

Amoko says one of his main concerns is that those orphaned by AIDS get support and understanding from the community so they can carry on with their schooling and take their place in society.

"I am lucky because I have a relative to stay with and am doing fine at school," says the teen, who wants to become an engineer like his father. "Other kids in Juba don’t have the same luck. So we are appealing to everybody to help them out, to help us."

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