A really exciting development we have seen in international adoption in the last few years has been an increasing number of children being adopted from Ethiopia, and wow, are they beautiful! To give you an idea, US government statistics tell us that while there were 42 children adopted in the US from Ethiopia in 1999, the number went up to 2,277 in 2009!
We have definitely felt this trend here at the Center for Adoption Medicine. In addition to our center doing many preadoptive consultations, I have had the pleasure, personally, of taking care of lots of these kids once they have come home. It is an interesting and varied group of children. There seem to be two distinct groups being adopted from Ethiopia. First, the infants who are coming into care soon after birth, and often, coming home even before their first birthdays. Then there are the older kids who come after one or both parents have perished, and these often arrive in sibling groups.
There is a rumor out there that all the kids coming from Ethiopia are healthy and have no issues, and this simply is not the case. The variability in health status and medical/developmental issues uncovered both on preadoptive consultation and after they come home is quite large. As with any country of origin, every child is different. There have been a few interesting trends, however. While we see latent tuberculosis (i.e. requiring treatment and infected but not yet sick or contagious) fairly frequently in all of our adopted kids, we have seen quite a bit of active tuberculosis (a life threatening illness, which can be contagious depending upon type of illness and age of the child) in some of our adoptees from Ethiopia. This has ranged from a child who was very obviously ill upon arrival, to a couple of siblings who passed screening in Ethiopia as having latent TB, looked and acted great, but both had active tuberculosis when rechecked in Seattle. Careful scrutiny of in-country testing, and rescreening once home is definitely prudent; and yes, even the kids who come home looking great are subjected to the same battery of tests that we do on most international adoptees, as we pick up all sorts of things that are not apparent on exam or history!
The other illness we are seeing more of is hepatitis A. This is an interesting one in that most young children can have the illness with no obvious symptoms. They do great. The problem is that it is very contagious and it is a more severe illness the older the patient is. This means that unimmunized contacts such as parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, etc. are at risk. There was recently a case of a grandma who caught hepatitis A from her totally healthy-appearing 1yo newly adopted grandkids from Ethiopia. She nearly died, and they only found out that the twins had hepatitis A when they were trying to figure out how she became infected. Of note, she did not travel to Ethiopia, she visited them once they got home!
It is currently recommended that all contacts of internationally adopted kids be vaccinated against hepatitis A, not just those that travel. While we have seen more cases in our Ethiopian kids, we only recently have been widely screening for it, and there is a high rate of hepatitis A in all the coutries from which we typically see international adoptees. HIV is another infection that is seen at a high rate in Ethiopia. We have seen a small number of patients with known HIV positivity, but fortunately have not yet been surprised by an undetected case.
Some other issues to think about in Ethiopian adoptees include female circumcision (or female genital mutilation) and transracial adoptive issues. Female circumcision is still practiced in parts of Ethiopia, especially rural areas. It can vary from some ritual cuts to removal of various structures that can significantly affect sexual and reproductive functioning. I have seen only a few cases and only one which was not known to the patient, her older sisters, or the adoptive family. It takes a pretty complete examination of the external genitalia to see some of these. Many older Ethiopian adoptees are frankly horrified at the idea of being fully examined by a doctor, as this is not something typically done in Ethiopia. Sometimes it takes a few visits before a full exam can be comfortably done. Specialized care by an OB-GYN with some knowledge of this will be important for these girls.
Transracial/transcultural adoption issues come up for most of our international adoptees. In kids of African descent adopted by non-black families, it can be a more prominent issue to society as a whole. Then there is the added level that many of our kids will be perceived to be of African-American descent, which is not how many of them see themselves. We are fortunate in Seattle to have a large Ethiopian community (and growing Ethiopian adoption community), so incorporating Ethiopian culture into one's family life is easier. For those living far out from the big city, reaching out to other adoptive families and Ethiopian communities is thought to be really helpful.
Lastly, let's talk about hair. Yes, hair. The care of African hair seems to be a science onto itself. I do not pretend to be an expert but have heard lots of tips, including saturating the hair with grapeseed or olive oil prior to shampooing and not washing it more than once a week. Many of our families have found support on the Adoption Hair and Skincare Yahoo! Group.
All in all, these kids have been a joy to work with. The courage and resilience of the older kids never ceases to amaze me. Every day it seems I think I have seen the most adorable, compeling child ever.