Schoolchildren with Aids 'dying at their desks'

Children are dying at their school desks in Zimbabwe as a "fatal cocktail" of Aids and food shortages sweeps the country, broadcaster Angela Rippon warned today.

Ms Rippon, who has recently returned from a fact-finding mission to the country for the British Red Cross, said she was moved to tears by what she had seen and heard.

"Three children have recently died at their school desks," she said.

"We've been hearing for months that the country, indeed the whole of southern Africa, is on the verge of a catastrophic famine.

"But second-hand stories from 6,000 miles away can't compare with first-hand experience.

"And that's exactly what I was given in situations which left me at times feeling both angry and helpless when faced with a crisis which now needs major humanitarian aid to save at least some of the population."

The British Red Cross estimates that up to a quarter of Zimbabweans have Hiv or Aids - some 1.5 million people.

More than 640,000 children have already been orphaned by the disease, and the problem has been compounded by two years of poor harvests which have left many facing starvation, the charity said.

Experts have predicted that famine could grip the country by September and food prices are rocketing.

Ms Rippon, a vice president of the charity, travelled to Zimbabwe earlier this month and has written about her experiences in an attempt to raise money for the Red Cross's Zimbabwe appeal.

She met eight families, including one in which a 54-year-old grandmother was caring for two children, both with Aids, after their mother died from the disease and their father was diagnosed as HIV positive.

The children's uncle, aunt and 18-month-old cousin were all believed to be Hiv positive, but had yet to be tested. Ms Rippon said their plight was a "bleak snapshot" of the situation facing millions of Zimbabweans.

"It's thought that up to 42% of people who are able to earn, or work the land, are crippled with Hiv or Aids," Ms Rippon said.

"Food prices are rocketing, putting the cost of even basic items such as bread, milk and sugar beyond the reach of most people."

She appealed to Britons to help the Red Cross raise cash to help the country. The Red Cross is the only charity to work across Zimbabwe without interference from the Mugabe regime, a spokeswoman said.

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