updated 4/7/2004 7:24:47 PM ET 2004-04-07T23:24:47

The number of children worldwide who have lost one or more parents to AIDS is expected to reach 25 million by the end of the decade, activist groups said Wednesday.

Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., released the report along with the two groups to raise awareness of the millions of children worldwide who are affected by the disease — being orphaned at a young age or contracting the illness.

Of the estimated 40 million people worldwide who are living with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, more than 2.5 million are under 15 and about 11.8 million are between 15 and 24, the report said.

The groups said 13.4 million children — roughly the population of Los Angeles County — have lost one or more parents to AIDS. That number is expected to nearly double by the end of the decade, the report said.

These numbers are personalized in the report through stories of individual children: Olivia Nantongo of Kampala, Uganda, was left an orphan at 12 when her mother, following her father, died of AIDS. Shunned by her family and neighbors, she sought refuge at a support group.

In 1999, Nantongo was part of a delegation that came to Washington to speak to then-President Clinton and Congress about AIDS. Soon after her return home, she was diagnosed with AIDS; she died a year later.

“We talk a lot now about getting treatment to people living with AIDS, but we also have to look at the social impact that this epidemic is having on families and communities, particularly in the hardest-hit regions,” said Sandy Thurman, president and CEO of the Washington-based International AIDS Trust, which provided half of the $100,000 funding for the report.

Children at higher risk of exploitation
The Children Affected by AIDS Foundation provided the rest of the funding.

Children who are orphaned by AIDS are an emerging problem, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Like Nantongo, they “experience high levels of psychological distress, ... social isolation, stigma and discrimination.” They also are more at risk for “physical and sexual abuse, as well as child labor exploitation,” the report said.

President Bush announced in February a five-year, $15 billion plan aimed at stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide. The plan would send $9 billion in new funding to help with prevention, treatment and care services at 14 of the most affected countries. So far, only $350 million of the total funding has been released.

DeWine said Wednesday’s report underscores the need for Congress to approve the funds to improve public health systems in developing countries.

“This isn’t just about AIDS. Most of the childhood deaths are avoidable and preventable. We can do simple things to save millions of children’s lives,” DeWine said.

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