October 14, 2009 § 6 Comments
(New York Times) AN NHON TAY, Vietnam — The first day of school was a special one last month for the 15 children from the Mai Hoa orphanage here. They are infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, and for the first time they would be allowed to attend the local primary school.
“The children were so excited,” said Sister Nguyen Thi Bao, who runs the orphanage and had been lobbying for three years to enroll them in the government school. “They had been wishing for this day to come.”
But when they arrived, they found an uprising by the parents of the other students, who refused to let their children enter the school together with the infected orphans. Some of the parents hastily backed away when the orphans walked past.
After a short standoff, the principal, who had agreed to accept the orphans, told Sister Bao that their papers were not in order and that they could not stay.
The children returned to the orphanage, just a short walk down a country road, where they continue to study in small classrooms, still exiled from the uninfected world.
“I was so happy to go to the school,” said a 12-year-old fourth grader for whom Sister Bao insisted on anonymity to keep her from the spotlight. “But then I saw that some parents wouldn’t let their children go to school with me because they are scared of my disease.”
The girl said she understood their reaction.
“If I were a normal child, I would be afraid, too, because I wouldn’t understand,” she said. “I would feel the same way. But I wouldn’t have acted the way they did.”
Sister Bao and officials of the district and the school, the An Nhon Dong Elementary School, have met with the parents since then, but they remain adamant.
“I don’t want my child to be with the AIDS children,” Nguyen Thi Thuy, 36, said the other day as she brought her 8-year-old son to school. “He could be injured, and it’s easy to transmit the disease through blood. And once you’re sick, it’s difficult to become a normal person again.”
One after another, parents who arrived with their children on small motorbikes raised their voices in agreement. If the orphans came back, said a man who gave his name only as Tam, he would pull his son out again.
“You go to any rural environment in Asia, and you are going to have similar reactions,” he said. “The general lack of understanding leads to this inappropriate reaction and fear.”
Most of the parents here are farmers with little education, but the prejudice seemed to extend to city folk as well.
“I don’t know why we don’t isolate people with AIDS,” said a civil servant in Ho Chi Minh City, about 20 miles southeast of the village. “Even with swine flu we isolate people, and this disease is much more dangerous.”
There is no truth to these fears, Mr. Murphy said.
“H.I.V. is not contagious from community contact, even if you are sharing cups and saucers and eating from a communal plate. You can’t get H.I.V. from that.”
In recent years, Vietnam’s prevention and treatment programs have been improving, Mr. Murphy said, although so far only 30 percent of people who need life-saving antiretroviral drugs receive them.
About 290,000 people in Vietnam, a country of 86 million, carry H.I.V. today, and Mr. Murphy said that although the rate of increase was slowing, the infection was spreading outside high-risk groups.
Among those infected, the government estimates that 5,100 are children. Although the law requires equal treatment, almost none of them have been accepted in schools because of the fears of other children’s parents, Nguyen Vinh Hien, the deputy minister of education, said last month.
He said the ministry would try to enroll at least half of these children in government schools by next year, but the experience of the Mai Hoa orphans suggests that this will not be easy.
Frightened and angry on that first day, some of the parents seemed heartless, Sister Bao said.
“They were saying the children were going to die anyway, so there’s no need for them to study,” she said. “ ‘If they are going to study, let them do it in the orphanage, and not put our children in danger.’ ”
The Mai Hoa AIDS Center, with its green and quiet grounds, was founded by a Roman Catholic order in 2003 as a hospice for patients in the final stages of the disease. It added the orphanage to care for children of people who died there.
The children are infected as well, Sister Bao said, but are receiving antiretroviral medication.
The buildings behind the classrooms are still a hospice, where a dozen emaciated patients lie on cots. Altogether, 250 people have died, Sister Bao said, including 90 whose unclaimed ashes are stored behind the hospice buildings.
Some of those are the remains of the children’s parents.
So the orphans of Mai Hoa live suspended between the death that fills the space behind their classrooms and the life of a world, just down the road, that still will not accept them.
“The children say they want to go to the other school because they want to have friends,” Sister Bao said.
But the 12-year-old fourth-grader seemed to have changed her mind.
“I don’t want to go to that school,” she said. “I already have enough friends here.”
photo: James Mott