HIV-positive kids run into negative adults

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Prejudiced parents teach disadvantaged children a bitter lesson in bigotry

HIV-positive children sit on a bed at the paediatric hospital in Hanoi in July. The government estimates that of 254,000 people living with HIV in 2010, 5,100 are children.

The children at the Mai Hoa orphanage do not bother to ask the dreaded question anymore.

And Sister Nguyen Thi Bao does not know whether to be happy or sad about their silence.

The HIV-positive orphans have all but abandoned hopes they will one day laugh, play and study with "normal" children.

When classes opened across Vietnam on August 16 this year, the kids knew that their new school-year would begin inside the orphanage, an AIDS hospice in Ho Chi Minh City's Cu Chi District.

Last year, they were allowed to attend the An Nhon Dong Primary School.

But a backlash from parents who refused to allow their children to attend classes with HIV infected children, forced the Mai Hoa orphans out.

Thanh Nien Weekly reported the story last September.

Amid almost empty classes and pressure from school officials, Sister Nguyen Thi Bao, who manages the Mai Hoa center, thought it best to take the children back to the orphanage, just a short walk down a country road, with a promise that they would be able to come back school this year.

But since then she has not heard anything from local authorities about enrolling the children in the new school-year.

"I was told that [parent] awareness is still low. So the kids should continue to study inside the orphanage until "˜the right time,'" Sister Bao said.

"I don't think this is the right time. I'm not sure when it will be," said Nguyen Van Chan, the principal of the An Nhon Dong Primary School.

"Some parents have kept asking us that if we let the infected orphans in, who would give a complete guarantee for their kids? I myself cannot do so," Chan said.

"The parents would allow the orphans to join their kids in flag-saluting ceremonies every Monday or occasional sightseeing tours. But that's the limit of their tolerance."

Chan said the only thing that local authorities and the school can do at this moment is to carry out both public and door-to-door education campaigns in the community so the stigma attached to the children can be removed.

In their ignorance and fear of HIV/AIDS, many parents believe their children could contract the virus by brushing shoulders, or if their kids were scratched or bitten by infected orphans.

There is no truth to these fears, said Dr. Chu Quoc An, deputy director of the HIV-AIDS Prevention and Controls Department at the Health Ministry.

"There is no scientific evidence that kids can contract the HIV virus by such actions," An said.

But parents have remained adamant.

Le Thi Nga, the mother of a fifth-grader and a third-grader at the An Nhon Dong school, said no matter how well-educated she is, she would never let her kids study with the Mai Hoa children.

"I know that there is little likelihood that my kids would get infected. But who knows?" Nga said.

"My kids are not equipped to protect themselves, and I cannot be with them all the time they are at school [if the infected orphans study there]. I also don't have time to take them for blood tests every three months."

Most of the parents in Cu Chi District's An Nhon Tay Commune, where the An Nhon Dong School is based, are farmers with little education. But the fear and stigma relating to HIV/AIDS is far more widespread.

Nguyen Thi Quy Hien, a 31- year-old teacher at an inner-city district in HCMC, said she would also pull her daughter, who is attending the first-grade next year, out of any school which accommodates HIV-infected children.

"No one wants to sacrifice their kids for the sake of integrating HIV-infected orphans. I don't think I say this just for myself."

The Health Ministry estimates that there are around 254,000 people living with HIV in 2010, including 5,100 children.

Silence is prudent

A 14-year-old girl at another HIV/AIDS orphanage in HCMC said she felt sorry for her peers at Mai Hoa.

The girl, whose name the center's management insisted on keeping anonymous, said she has been able to attend a public school and interact with her friends quite happily.

"Because my friends have hidden my [HIV] status from their parents," she said.

A representative from the center, who also declined to be named, said her center had learned a lesson from Mai Hoa's case.

"The more the public knows about the status of the infected kids, the more difficult it will be for them to integrate into the community," she said.

The representative insisted that even the name of the district where her center is based is not made public.

"You will never be able to imagine the public pressure if they are informed [of our kids attending public schools]."

"˜Give them a break'

Around 50 kilometers away from downtown HCMC, the Mai Hoa AIDS Center features a green, quiet campus. Founded in 2003 as a hospice for patients, the facility also houses an orphanage to care for children of people who died there.

The children, who receive antiretroviral medication, are taught with textbooks and teachers provided by the An Nhon Dong Primary School.

Under Vietnam's HIV/AIDS laws, children cannot be denied access to school if they or any members of their family are living with HIV/AIDS. The law also bars employers from firing employees, or doctors from refusing to treat anyone, because of their HIV status.

"Children with HIV should go to school to be able to have a chance to develop like any other children. It is their right to go to school," said Jean Dupraz, deputy country representative of UNICEF Vietnam.

Eamonn Murphy, Vietnam Country Director of UNAIDS the UN's AIDS-fighting body, said that regarding the Mai Hoa case, local authorities should have done more over the last twelve months to educate the community.

"If the knowledge is low, we have to educate the parents. If they are fully informed and understand the situation and still choose to be ignorant, that's their responsibility," Murphy said on the sidelines of a conference held to promote a booklet disseminating HIV/AIDS facts and information in HCMC this week.

"The children should not suffer for the rest of their lives because of a lack of education. They will live full lives and they will be adults some day."

Sister Bao said among 16 students denied access to the An Nhon Dong School last year, four have been sponsored to further their studies at a secondary school in HCMC.

"I just hope they will not be ostracized as they were here," she said.

The Catholic nun was also firm that the rest of the students at the orphanage cannot be approached for interviews.

"Give them a break. They have endured enough hurt."

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