News

6,000 steps will help AIDS orphans

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

On the heels of a recent United Nations report stating more than half of the 37.2 million people infected by HIV are women, Federal Way-based World Vision has organized a fund-raising walk next week to make people aware of how many children are orphaned every day when their parents die of the devastating virus.

The "6,000 Steps for 6,000 Orphans" event is the brainchild of Dana Buck, director of strategic alliances at World Vision, whose headquarters are in Federal Way.

The walk will be held at The Commons at Federal Way (formerly SeaTac Mall) on World AIDS Day next Wednesday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

Buck said the idea for the walk came to him as he and his staff were trying to think of a World AIDS Day activity to raise awareness of AIDS' toll. Every 14 seconds, a child somewhere is orphaned by AIDS, he said, which comes out to about 6,000 a day.

"My assistant and I went to Five Mile Park to see how long it takes to walk 6,000 steps," he said.

They found it only takes about an hour, which most people can do. To make the idea more practical, Buck said, he thought of a walk-a-thon in which people would sponsor participants to raise money for the orphans.

World Vision worked with a vendor to allow people to set up Web pages describing why they're doing the walk and what they're hoping to accomplish. So far, Buck said, there are 140 pages.

People aren't just walking in Federal Way. They have signed up all over the country, and several plan to walk on the Great Wall in China.

The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization focused its "AIDS Epidemic Update 2004" on women. The report indicated the number of women living with the virus has increased in each region of the world over the past two years, now making up almost half of the 37.2 million 15-to-49-year-olds infected worldwide.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the worst-affected region, women make up 60 percent of 13.3 million of those infected with the virus. In East Asia, there was a 56 percent rise in the number of women with HIV/AIDS, and there was a 48 percent rise in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

According to the report, women are more physically susceptible to infection and are twice as likely to contract the disease from an infected man than a man is to contract the disease from an infected woman.

That women are increasingly the victims of the disease has been known by aid workers on the ground for some time, but humanitarian workers are happy to see it get some recognition.

"It's not new news to those of us in the field, especially in sub-Saharan Africa," said Dean Owen, a spokesman for World Vision. "It reconfirms to our audience and to the public that women and children often bear the brunt of the AIDS epidemic."

The sex trade is partly to blame for the expansion and rapid spread of the disease in the developing world, Owen said. "Most prostitutes are women. Young women and girls are forced to work as sex slaves in developing countries by rebel groups," he said.

He added many young women and children also are seized by the child sex tourism industry, particularly in Latin America and Asia. "There, girls have been forced into the sex slave trade as young as 5 years old," Owen said. "Men pay a premium price the younger they are. It's despicable.

"This reiterates the tragic role women suffer with in respect to AIDS," he added. "They're forced into prostitution to make ends meet. It's horrific."

The children of HIV-infected mothers are at risk on several levels. Many are born with the virus, infected by their mothers, but the ones born un-infected are left alone and vulnerable when their parents die of the disease.

World Vision helps AIDS orphans by providing education, helping them get access to necessities and teaching older children to raise younger children. "There are many child households, where the head of the household is 12 years old," Owen said.

The AIDS Epidemic Update 2004 also states the number of people living with HIV/AIDS has reached a record number, with the sharpest increases in infection rates in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia over the past two years.

The 50 percent increase in infection in East Asia between 2002 and 2004 stems mainly from the spread of the disease in China, Indonesia and Vietnam, according to the report.

The report credited the growing number of people living with the disease in the Ukraine and the Russian Federation with the 40 percent increase in infection in Eastern Europe. Russia has the largest epidemic in Europe, according to the report, with an estimated 860,000 people living with the virus.

Some of the cultural taboos about discussing sex are beginning to break down in some countries, and people are becoming more aware of how the virus is transmitted and how to prevent it, "but we still have a long way to go," Owen said.

In wealthy countries, people have access to cocktail drugs to mitigate the effects of the disease and slow its progress. Not so in the developing countries, where "they're way out of people's price ranges," he said.

In 2003, President Bush in his State of the Union address pledged $15 billion over five years for the world AIDS problem. Owen said funding has been strong in the two years since —  "not as strong as we'd like to see, but more than any other country."

He added the United States has an interest in helping stop the spread of the disease in the developing world: The U.S. will eventually feel an economic impact as the countries U.S. businesses outsource jobs to become gripped by the disease. "The epidemic is getting worse, not better," Owen said. "It's a tidal wave coming to the U.S., and it's coming sooner than people think."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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