- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

KAMPALA, Uganda — The reception area of the Mildmay International Study Center on Naziba Hill, which is about a 30-minute ride just outside the capital, is quietly busy. Children are called into the triage room, adults are heading into counseling sessions and a mom sits breast-feeding her infant. The guys don't seem to notice, or surely they would have grunted. My eyes settle startled, actually on the mom, wondering why she would pose such a risk to her baby. My attention, though, is drawn to the churtlings of a toddler who is stretching her arms in my direction.

"She senses you are the mother in the group," this child's caretaker says, handing me the darling orphan, one of 10.4 million children orphaned by AIDS a number expected to double by 2010. We actually feel quite comfortable with one another, and I coddle her in my arms and rub her cheeks, telling her she is a pretty girlie-girl. After a couple of minutes, I have to trot off with the other journalists for a tour of what turns out to be an unsoothing eye-rub about what one nongovernmental organization, or NGO, is doing amid the HIV-AIDS crisis that is smacking one generation after another.

In 1993, 30 percent of Ugandans were living with HIV-AIDS, compared to 6 percent today. While that prevalence remains too high, the Museveni administration proposes curbing "mother-to-child transmission of HIV through anti-retroviral therapy" understanding, and rightly so, that AIDS has not only decimated Uganda's human resources, but also stunts trade and other economies, and undermines political stability. No African nation and most certainly not the shaky political foundation in Uganda needs those headaches.

To that end, the World Bank- and U.N.-supported Multisectoral AIDS Program (MAP) is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into fighting the death and misery inflicted by HIV-AIDS on Africa, where 2.3 million have died, and where, in 1991 alone, 3.4 million were infected. Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa is being hit harder than any other region in the world, bearing 70 percent of infections and 90 percent of the orphans worldwide. Worse, still, is that fact that ignorance about the epidemic remains pervasive in Africa, where, in some parts, rumors persist that a man can rid himself of the deadly disease by having intercourse with a virgin. Also troublesome, at least in my mind, are the problems of blatant prostitution in Uganda (where night spots cater to young women and foreign-born men), and the fact that half of the more than 5 million new infections reported in 2000 were among 15 to 24-year-olds with adolescent girls and young women being particularly vulnerable. Moreover, of the 1.8 million pregnant women infected with the wicked HIV-AIDS virus, 1.5 million live in sub-Saharan Africa.

With unparalleled statistics like that and the fact that Uganda has been measurably successful in at least curbing new infections I was especially looking forward to our interview with Uganda's director of the Ministry of Health, Elizabeth Madraa, which had been arranged by World Bank officials stationed in Uganda. Alas, Ms. Madraa was too busy interviewing potential hires to meet with us and answer questions. What is Uganda doing to dispel myths about virgins ridding men of HIV-AIDS? What are Ugandans doing to discourage infected mothers from breast-feeding their vulnerable newborns? What is Uganda, a mostly Christian nation, doing to promote sexual abstinence?

Blessedly, Mildmay, a Christian charity, is hardly a stranger in the war, so to speak, against epidemics. Born of the 1866 cholera epidemic in London, Mildmay, which opened its first HIV-AIDS center in 1988, not only offers HIV-AIDS treatment and counseling at its Ugandan site, but also trains and educates others on patient care. Its on-site training facilities include a hostel and its mobile clinical program includes most of the same holistic services.

What I find particularly heartwarming are the care and services afforded Mildmay's youngest patients. While it offers diagnoses and treatment for children of all ages, Mildmay also has something called Jajja's Home, an on-site respite and rehabilitation center. The home opened in September 2000 and includes a special center for infants and toddlers. Another, Noah's Ark Center, targets older children and, if you can picture the ear-to-ear smile on one child's face and the enthusiastic hug-you-to-death greeting she gave a staffer during our visit, then you can imagine the hope through hard work that reverberates with the helpful and faithful hands at Mildmay. Indeed, this particular adolescent was herself quite ill just a couple of years ago.

After touring other sections of Mildmay, where, of course, all patients remain anonymous, we returned to the reception area, where I had met my girlie-girl, who had since been put down for a nap. But there, still seated, was mom breast-feeding baby. "Have you suggested to her the dangers of breast-feeding?" I whisper to a Mildmay official. "Of course," she replies, "but then their mother-in-laws want to know why they stop customs and traditions," she says, before turning to answer another journalist's question.

On our ride back to Kampala, my eyes envision that breast-fed infant as an HIV-AIDS patient someday at Mildmay, and my mind keeps turning over and over something that the late Adam Clayton Powell frequently used to punctuate his commentary: "Keep the faith, baby."


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