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Helping Rwandan orphans avoid HIV

Among the tragic side-effects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide is that so many children were left behind after witnessing the trauma of seeing many family members, neighbors and friends die. A staggering 600,000 youngsters lost parents during the calamity, and many are alone today or raising siblings on their own.

A research team at Stanford is now working with some of these youngsters, providing health education and counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, among other services, in an effort to improve their psychological health and help them avoid infection with HIV.

“The key thing is the impact of post-traumatic stress on these children’s lives,” said Andrew Zolopa, MD, an HIV specialist at Stanford. “When they tried to integrate into an economic situation or schooling, they failed. They dropped out. They were too stressed. Imagine you’ve lived through this horror. You have no parents. They try to reintegrate to society but these things are still there and bubble up.”

The work is being done in collaboration with Uyisenga N’Manzi, a Rwandan nonprofit that is helping to provide housing, education, medical care and other services to orphans and vulnerable youth who survived the genocide. An interesting video produced by the nonprofit provides poignant testimony to the value of the program.

“I used to say no other genocide survivor lived as miserable a life as I do,” one youth stands up to tell the group. “But then I met a child of 10 who stays alone in the house. I really felt sympathy for him. I said, ‘I still have hope to survive.’ Here I have met children who have similar problems. We have to pull up our socks and work hard.”

Another young woman says the group is “an organization that cares for us. But besides being an organization, it is our family.”

The youngsters in the program are now coming of age sexually. Because of psychological trauma or lack of economic support, they may be prone to engaging in unsafe sex practices that could lead to HIV infection, Zolopa said. He fears they could be the “next wave of the HIV epidemic.” He and his colleagues hope that by working with the youth, helping to bolster their self-esteem and educating them about safe sex practices, the researchers can help them avoid HIV and other health problems. More than 100 have signed up for the one-year program, which is funded by a grant from the Gilead Foundation.

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