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Romania: Stigma Surrounds AIDS Children

Prejudice forces young victims of the virus to live isolated lives.
By Traian George

Growing up in Romania is hard for many children, especially for those born in poverty, but for those afflicted with HIV it is doubly damning.

Romania has more children with HIV or AIDS than anywhere in Europe, but most in the country believe people with the virus should be isolated in hospitals and not mix with the healthy population.

Laura found out by accident three years ago that she was HIV positive. “I got into a fight with my mother, and that’s when she suddenly told me,” she said.

“I was shocked, cried for days, and it was only with the doctor’s help that I overcame my crisis.

“But I am still afraid to tell my classmates, because I fear I would be marginalised, or even forced to stop my studies.”

Laura’s fears are understandable. Even the families and friends of victims tend to ostracise them. Opinion polls also reveal that the public believes it is the duty of the state, not families, to take care of them.

Efforts by Romania’s authorities and medical experts to educate the public about AIDS have largely failed, and less than 60 per cent of HIV infected children attend public schools in Romania, UNICEF said last year.

Most of those who attend state schools are able to do so only by keeping their illness a secret, the UN body added.

In spite of public awareness campaigns, many Romanians do not know how the virus is transmitted and are so poorly informed that they avoid all physical contact with victims.

“I’ve had problems with my teeth and but none of the dentists I contacted would even look at me,” said Dumitru, a 17-year-old HIV sufferer. “They were terrified they might catch the disease.”

The Romanian media has detailed even more extreme cases of AIDS hysteria among public officials.

In one primary school in Constanta, 200 kilometres east of Bucharest, they reported that teachers had refused to touch objects that had been in contact with HIV positive children.

Even those put in charge of helping these children are often not well informed about the disease and have numerous prejudices.

“Most people have problems in understanding that HIV-infected children have normal feelings and physiological needs,” said Venera Botescu, a Constanta-based official with World Vision, an international development organisation.

“The prejudices are so many, and they often spring from a lack of even minimal information.

“People here have to become more responsible. Only a few parents with HIV infected children are even curious enough to find more about the disease or get involved in the fight against it.”

Official statistics suggest the number of children infected with HIV is now on the rise. The Dr Matei Bals Infectious Diseases Institute in Bucharest last year estimated that more than 11,500 children were now HIV positive or living with AIDS, compared to 11,000 people at the end of 2003.

Some specialists say this is only the tip of the iceberg, as many of those infected never show up for treatment and so are not represented in the statistics.

“We may have to accept that the real number is ten times the number in the official data,” said Rodica Matusa, a doctor from Hope, a Romanian humanitarian organisation.

The government insists, however, that Romania is becoming a model of how governments, working with drug companies and international agencies, could bring AIDS under control, principally by ensuring the necessary three-drug anti-retroviral cocktails were available.

Many health experts say the real picture is less rosy as the treatment remains expensive and many sufferers go without. Hospitals often run out of the drugs, leaving patients with gaps between doses that encourages their bodies to develop a resistance to treatment.

To make matters worse, health experts fear a second wave of AIDS and HIV may be about to hit Romania when children infected at birth in the late 1980s become old enough to have sex and transmit the disease themselves.

The cheap heroin that also has recently flooded Bucharest is another contributing factor, as many users share needles and so spread the virus without sexual contact.

All this, experts say, makes AIDS education more crucial than ever.

“People need to find out that HIV is an infection like many others and doesn’t represent a stigma, as they usually think,” said Cornelia Constantin, of the CHI-RO Foundation, which deals with AIDS-related issues among children.

Traian George Horia is a reporter with the Cotidianul daily newspaper in Bucharest

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