The report called on Wednesday for swift international aid to families and communities struggling to support AIDS orphans, calling it a "crisis of gargantuan proportions" with grave implications for African societies. 

"We must keep parents alive and ensure that orphans and other vulnerable children stay in school, and are protected from exploitation and abuse," United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy said in a statement. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region worst affected by the world HIV/AIDS epidemic, with an estimated 26.6 million people infected with the disease. The report said that by the end of 2001 more than 11 million African children under the age of 15 had been orphaned by AIDS, up from fewer than one million in 1990.

Growing crisis

The report said that by 2010, about 20 million African children will have lost one or both parents to the disease. In countries worst hit by the epidemic such as Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, where HIV prevalence rates are higher than 30%, as well as in Zimbabwe, more than one in five children will be orphaned by 2010, 80% of them by AIDS, the report said.

By 2010, about 20 million children
will have lost one or both parents

UNICEF said that even countries like Uganda which have succeeded in stabilising or lowering HIV/AIDS prevalence rates, the orphan crisis will grow as parents already infected by the disease continue to die.

The report added that extended families were caring for 90% of Africa's AIDS orphans, putting increasing burdens on family networks, more and more of which are headed by women and grandparents.

"Most worryingly, it is precisely those countries where the extended family is already most stretched that will see the largest increase in orphans," UNICEF said.