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Care for Mental Health of AIDS Orphans

China is making all-out efforts to heal the traumas of kids orphaned by AIDS in the central Henan province, where more than 2,000 kids have lost both parents to the epidemic.

To alleviate the kids' fear of the disease, caregivers at Sunshine Welfare Home, a government-run welfare institution for AIDS orphans in Lugang Township, Shangcai County, have collected every piece of information they can lay their hands on about AIDS, and tried to explain to the kids in plain language how they should protect themselves from the disease.

"AIDS related knowledge is an essential part of our scheme to maintain the kids' mental well-being," said Li Guohua, head of the welfare home. "It's crucial to reassure these children that they are as healthy as all their peers and should be as confident."

According to Li, most kids have psychological problems when they first came to the welfare home. "They tend to be timid, depressed and vulnerable. We have to work really hard to distract their attention from their sorrows and grievances, and it's often a long and gradual process."

Wei Wanli, 10, is smart and delicate but childhood miseries have made her look older than her years.

Wei's father died of AIDS two years ago and just a few days later, her widowed mother, also an AIDS victim, ended her own life out of despair. After a brief stay with relatives, Wei and her younger brother were sent to the welfare home in 2003.

"I was scared, helpless and shy to talk to anyone at the beginning," the girl said in an interview with Xinhua.

Instead of lecturing the grief-stricken girl about self reliance and confidence, caregivers at the welfare home simply prepared her favorite food and tried to involve her in group singing, dancing and various games.

"Very soon I was accepted by the community and made friends with many other peers," Wei acknowledged.

The 40-odd kids at the welfare home are all like brothers and sisters, noted Li. "They share more or less the same background, so there's no discrimination among them."

Nie Juan, 16, is the oldest orphan at Sunshine Welfare Home. She's now a third-grader at a junior high school in vicinity. "I used to feel like an outsider at school -- I preferred staying away from my classmates because I never expected they would like to talk face to face with someone whose parents died of AIDS."

But her caregivers urged her to push aside her pains in a "tactful" and "inoffensive" way, as the girl herself put it.

"They told me no one looked down upon me or discriminate against me if I did not keep myself away from others," she said. "Then I realized many classmates had been friendly all along -- I was even invited to dinners with their families from time to time."

The caregivers at the welfare home are requested to live there and have meals with the kids, so that they can detect their psychological and behavioral problems and provide individual counseling, according to Li.

The impoverished Shangcai County, located in the southeastern part of Henan province and home to over 1 million people, has 700 AIDS orphans. Most of them are adopted by relatives and non-relatives, or live in orphanages, noted sources with the county government.

China's most populous and largely agricultural province of Henan became the site of one of the country's worst AIDS outbreaks when a large number of farmers were infected after selling blood to illegal dealers and having HIV-infected blood pumped back into them, before 1995.

Official statistics show that 11,844 people have been confirmed HIV-positive in the province and 5,499 have contracted AIDS. China currently has approximately 840,000 HIV-positive people, and some 80,000 AIDS patients, according to the Ministry of Health.

(Xinhua News Agency June 23, 2004)

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