"There are a few that cannot come out to play today. They are sick," the nurse informs us at a Vladivostok orphanage for HIV/AIDS orphans associated with the children's hospital No.3. Indeed many of the orphanage's children become too ill to play. Though looking down the hall as three of the children run to tackle another volunteer with hugs singing, "Swing me! Swing me!" it is hard to imagine that these children will ever lack in youthful energy.
Statistics on orphans in Russia are dire, and their futures bleak. The Ministry of Education reports that after leaving orphanages 40 percent of the youths will become drug users, 50 percent will spend time in prison, and 10 percent will commit suicide. Only 4 percent are ever admitted into universities. 10 percent will disappear entirely within the first year of leaving the orphanage.
However, orphans suffering from HIV/AIDS may rarely reach the point of release into the community. Often in childhood they become so ill that they are instead moved into hospitals, or other treatment facilities. Of the 24 children currently housed in the Vladivostok HIV/AIDS orphanage only five are receiving serious antiretroviral therapy for the disease, funded by individual donations from Moscow.
Indeed so much of what these children require is not available to them. Most apparent is the lack of interaction and physical
contact. "Hold me in your hands!" one little girl said, her arms stretched up to me. Firm little fists grab hold of your jacket and there is no easy way to get them to release. Many of these young children, from newborns to 7 years old, once in your arms will hold on for dear life not to be put down.
While much of this yearning for contact comes simply from the nature of their desperate situation, much of it may also have to do with Russia's current attitude towards individuals carrying the virus. UNICEF representative John Varoli concluded after his visit to a Federal HIV/AIDS Children's Hospital in Ust Izhora in Russia that, "these children are [seen as] modern-day lepers. Most people are afraid to touch them, to hug them, and give them the human warmth that they so much crave."
As people turn away, cases of children infected with the virus are on the rise. USAID reported that in the first nine months of 2004 a total of 9,651 children were born to HIV infected mothers, an amount more then three times higher than only two years before.
While only a few of these children will carry the virus, it estimated that some 20 to 25 percent of these children are abandoned and left in the care of government institutions.
In the meantime, there is little expectation that the AIDS epidemic, either in the adult or child population will decline in the near future. Russia's Health and Development Ministry has stated that 200 million rubles ($7.75 million) would be spent on AIDS prevention in 2007 out of a total health budget of 5.3 billion rubles ($205.4 million). There are up to an estimated 1.3 million people living with AIDS in Russia today.
Such numbers may serve to impress or depress, as statistics and budgets often do, or perhaps even to incite action among the national and international community. Yet, it was as a little brown-haired, wide-eyed one of that 1.3 million stood alone at the edge of a field watching sadly as we left that I took the situation to heart. "Come back!" She called out, one little mitten dangling from a waving hand.