"Despair and loneliness used to take me over when my mom died of AIDS in 2002. Now my dad is still suffering from the horrible disease. How I wish I could help relieve his pain."
The heart-rending plea comes from the diary of Zhang Chunxiao, a 10-year-old girl from Shangcai County in Central China's Henan Province.
She's one of more than 2,000 children in Henan - one of the worst-affected regions - struggling to face up to the nightmare of life without one or both parents.
In the early 1990s, many poor farmers in Henan sold their plasma to illegal blood stations, thus being infected with the deadly disease and then spreading it to their spouses.
And while the children of parents whose lives have been claimed by AIDS may themselves be healthy, many face a bleak future blighted by stigma, ignorance and the lack of basic opportunities taken for granted by most of us.
The bad news is that the number of children thus affected by the devastating fallout of AIDS is climbing nationwide.
The good news is that a number of agencies are now pooling their resources to try and tackle the menace and give these kids a future.
Struggling against poverty, illness and stigma, this sector of society poses a major challenge to the Chinese Government and society at large.
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS, 14 million children worldwide have become orphans through AIDS. By 2010, that figure is expected to more than triple.
Government figures show there are an estimated 840,000 HIV/AIDS-infected people in China, most living in rural areas.
That implies an inevitable rise in the number of orphans.
"These children have witnessed their parents suffering from the fatal disease," said Liu Wenxian, principal of Dinglou Primary School in Shangcai. "As a result, most of them isolate themselves and don't feel like communicating with others."
About 30 children in his school have lost one or both parents through AIDS.
"Some of the children bear a deep hatred towards society as a result," said Huang Yan, an official with the China Population Welfare Foundation. He has visited some of the children affected by the disease in Henan.
The loss of a parent is devastating to any child. But sadly the tragedy of AIDS runs deeper. Many also face losing the opportunity to continue with their studies and widespread discrimination. That in turn drastically reduces their chances in life.
The government responded last year by outlining a policy to provide free nine-year compulsory education for children orphaned by AIDS. Poverty-stricken AIDS-infected families are also offered certain subsidies.
A number of provincial governments have followed the State's lead by launching various programmes.
According to Wang Jumei, vice-governor of Henan Province, the local government is determined to invest 10.25 million yuan (US$1.24 million) this year to establish more special orphanages for these children.
Another 80 million yuan (US$9.8 million) will be allocated to build primary schools and clinics as well as updating the infrastructure in the worst AIDS-struck villages in Henan.
Members of the public are being encouraged to adopt orphans, she added.
The local government offers a subsidy of 100 yuan (US$12) per month for each orphan adopted.
But that is not enough.
"The government can help solve part of the problem through various policies and subsidies. However, more should be done by all walks of life," said China Population Welfare Foundation (CPWF) Secretary General Miao Xia.
Last August, the foundation launched a project as part of the Programme of Happiness to subsidize 93 healthy children who have lost one or both of their AIDS-infected parents in the three villages of Shangcai County in Henan. That was done with the assistance of the Ford Foundation.
Besides providing these children with books and stationery, CPWF has also posted three special teachers responsible for the children's psychological well-being.
"They know well that their parents died of AIDS," said Zhao Juan, one of the three special teachers in Shangcai.
"At first they would immediately turn silent when asked about AIDS. But now most of them can face the topic."
Today these children live with their relatives, or surviving parent, and study and play with local children.
"We teach them knowledge about prevention of AIDS and keep a close eye on their mental state," Zhao said.
"Every week we gather them at least twice for special activities such as skipping rope and drawing," said Li Guang, an official with the Shangcai Family Planning and Population Commission, who is also in charge of the project.
"During the harvest time, we organize local farmers to help their families in the field."
After almost a year's work, the majority of the 93 children look happier than before.
"We don't need too much help. I am happy with what I have got," said Liu Yali, a 10-year-old girl who has lost both of her parents to AIDS.
"I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I will do my best to eliminate the deadly disease."
Said principal Liu: "They are independent and healthy both physically and mentally."
CPWF's Miao acknowledged: "We are still fumbling our way to help them since we have no model to follow."
But we hope this programme can set an example for others and help accumulate more experience in coping with the problem."
A small number of similar charity organizations such as Oxfam Hong Kong and Operation Blessing in China as well as a few individuals from both home and abroad have thrown their weight behind the effort to protect this vulnerable group in society.
But while there are helping hands everywhere, they are scattered and badly organized.
An effective and continuous assistance programme is urgently required.
"We notice that teamwork is still missing in the co-operation between local government and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs)," Miao said.
She pointed out that some government officials are even ignorant of AIDS and have no idea how to mobilize efforts to help the children.
Miao urged the establishment of an efficient social mechanism that can pool the resources of the government, NGOs and individuals.
"Our foundation is trying to become an intermediary that helps bring together all the various sources of help from the global community," she said.
"I don't think it is a good solution to have all these children living together as we still lack professional nurses," Miao said.
"China is in great need of psychologists with expertise in this field," she added.
Since a large number of AIDS patients live in rural areas short of higher-educated people, the training of existing teachers becomes all the more important.
Beijing-based Li Yan from Operation Blessing, a humanitarian non-government organization, echoed Miao and said that adoption is the best way to help those children.
"The business sector should also take part of the responsibility," according to William Valentino, a US volunteer in AIDS relief who works in Bayer (China) Ltd.
He calls for the establishment of a business coalition to work with the government and NGOs in raising more funds for helping this group of children.
"Chinese companies should play a more decisive role in the coalition," he said.
Valentino also urges greater involvement from individual volunteers.
Meanwhile, an official with the Shangcai Family Planning and Population Commission, Guang Xiang, holds that education of the children's relatives and local residents is needed as they are closest to the youngsters affected.
"Their words and behaviour can render a huge influence on these children," she explained.
But she also voiced concern that inappropriate care would result in a sense of superiority due to the special treatment among the children.
"We should create a healthy and equal environment with no discrimination and we should not spoil them," she said.
Both Guan and Miao agree that these children should be told the difficulties they are experiencing now are only part of life, and that they are not alone in dealing with them.
"They should be taught to hold a positive view towards life and society," Miao said.
Zeng Jinyan, a junior student from Renmin University of China, believes the most important thing is to help them live on. She is now also a member of Beijing Aiyuanhui, a NGO specialized in AIDS relief.
"I have been to AIDS-infected villages in Henan twice. There is still a large group of children who are barely surviving," Zeng said.
"But I am glad to see that a lot of local villagers including some AIDS patients have voluntarily organized themselves to help every AIDS-infected household."
The top priority is in prevention and control of AIDS, especially the dissemination of related knowledge among the public and appropriate sex education among the young generations. "That is the fundamental solution," Miao stressed.
Starting this year, the central government has initiated its so-called "four free charges and one care" comprehensive project for HIV/AIDS victims.
The project includes offering free medicine for HIV carriers, free and anonymous HIV tests for villagers, free education for orphans of HIV/AIDS victims, free pre-natal treatment of infected pregnant women, and taking care of elderly people who have lost children to AIDS.
The Shangcai Family Planning and Population Commission announced early this year that it will launch an AIDS prevention programme in 2004 to popularize the knowledge about prevention and control of AIDS.
(China Daily June 9, 2004)