Members of the Dream Doctors Project entertain children in Addis Ababa.A program launched by an Israeli medical infectious disease specialist has succeeded in decreasing the fatalities among Ethiopian children infected with the HIV/AIDS virus.

The program involves treating the children with anti-retroviral therapy, according to the initiator of the project, Professor Danny Engelhard, head of the Department of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and AIDS at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem.

Figurers indicate that in Ethiopia, close to 60,000 children become infected with HIV each year. It is also estimated that 2.2 million people – 200,000 of them children – are living with the virus in Ethiopia making the country the third largest infected population in the world.

Anti-retroviral drugs inhibit the replication of HIV. When antiretroviral drugs are given in combination, HIV replication and immune deterioration can be delayed, and survival and quality of life improved. However, in Ethiopia, the treatment is provide only for those who can afford the drugs.

Engelhard first became involved with AIDS patients in Ethiopia through a training program for Ethiopian doctors and nurses held in Israel.

“Two medical teams, which went to Israel for four weeks of training, have been able to establish pediatric AIDS clinic in which currently many children are being treated. This program has continued and we have another team coming to Israel for training next month,” he told The Reporter in Addis Ababa during his visit last week.

The program is supported by International Training and Education Center on HIV (ITECH) and the American Center of Disease Control (CDC) under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affair and the Israel Embassy in Addis

As a result of the training program, Engelhard first traveled to Ethiopia in February 2005, and was instrumental in launching anti-retroviral therapy for children at the Mother Theresa Missionaries of Charity Orphanage Center, which houses 400 orphaned children with AIDS.

Engelhard said that that only a few hundred of the approximately 200,000 Ethiopian children infected with AIDS receive anti-retroviral treatment, which can transform the fatal disease into a chronic one.

“Since the anti-retroviral therapy began, the number of children who died of the disease and related cases had dropped to only three. Treatments have been given to 130 children who are doing very well. In Jerusalem, we have not lost a single child to AIDS for more than 10 years and there are children whom I have followed for 15-16 years. In Ethiopia too, with more effort, I believe we can prevent all deaths from the disease,” Engelhard said.

Englehard led a group of Israeli doctors and volunteers on a return visit last week to the orphanage the Israeli aid umbrella group the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid (IsraAid) reported. Aware that the patients he’s working with are also children, Engelhard included two ‘medical clowns’ in his delegation.

Medical clowns are volunteers who visit hospital wards and are trained to help patients laugh in order to help them heal. Using their creativity and good heartedness, the clowns juggle, make balloon animals, do origami, spin plates and will stand on their heads, if necessary, to put a smile on the faces of those who are ill.

“The medical clowns are part of the “Dream Doctors Project” which was created in Israel in 2002 with the aim of introducing joy and hope for
children living with HIV/AIDS. They have this special way of communicating with children,” Engelhard said. “Weak patients who can hardly talk to their doctors respond very positively to them.”

The Dream Doctors project is being implemented in over 12 hospitals throughout Israel, with over 30 professional medical clowns involved. The clowns who were part of Engelhard’s delegation – Jerome Arush and David Berashi -have been trained for two years in medical clowning.

“When they came to the orphanages, the
children where filled with joy. Although these medical clowns are particularly trained for individual attention, the group entertainment
they provided was just as effective, and left the workers at the center in tears,” said Engelhard.

Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia Yaacov Amitai, who joined the visit by the group, said he has witnessed the excitement that the medical clowns brought to the children living with HIV/AIDS.