Americans adopt HIV-positive kids from Ethiopia

Parents say they are driven by a desire for social change and confidence that the disease is more manageable than ever before.

When Solomon Henderson was a year old, his birth parents left him at an Ethiopian orphanage with three things: a picture of Jesus, a plastic crucifix, and HIV.

As one of 14,000 Ethiopian newborns diagnosed with the virus every year, Solomon's prospects for survival – much less adoption – were grim. But Erin Henderson's heart stirred when she saw him, and she decided on the spot to adopt him. "They told me that they weren't sure he would live through the weekend," Henderson said by e-mail from her home in rural Wyoming. Solomon, now an active 2-year-old, is part of a small but growing movement: Americans adopting children from abroad diagnosed as HIV-positive.

Figures from US-based Adoption Advocates International, the agency that arranges the majority of HIV-positive adoptions in Ethiopia, show a clear and steady rise, from two such adoptions in 2005, four in 2006, 13 in 2007, and 38 either completed or pending this year.

The motivations are wide-ranging – some parents say they were driven by religion, a desire for social change, or because the disease is more manageable than ever before. Over the past decade, HIV has become a chronic disease, rather than a death sentence. Some children, like Solomon, take daily medication that can cost between $700 and $1,500 a month, though all parents planning to adopt children diagnosed with HIV are required to carry health insurance, so costs are usually less.

American adoptions of Ethiopian children peaked at 1,255 in 2007, and the adoption of children diagnosed as HIV-positive is growing in step, according to US government figures. American adoptions in Ethiopia have steadily risen from 135 in 2003, to 289 in 2004 to 440 in 2005 to 731 in 2006.

Margaret Fleming, the founder of Chances By Choice, an international HIV-positive adoption advocacy group, said her group also has overseen adoptions of children from Haiti, Guatemala, and Russia.

Fleming, who has three children diagnosed as HIV-positive in her own brood of 12 children, said she wanted to make a difference in the world. "I feel like I'm on the cutting edge of making an impact on this epidemic," Fleming said by telephone from her office in Chicago. "It's given us a chance to be ambassadors, and our children to be ambassadors."

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