Monday, December 1, 2008

1 Dec-World AIDS DAY

"DAD, can you please not let the principal know that I'm positive?" the 11-year-old boy asked B days before he was to step into the new school.

Even before that question came, B had long decided not to disclose his son's HIV status to anyone in school this time, learning from past experience.

It was not an easy decision to make under any circumstances because it meant having to live with the guilt and constant fear that accidents might happen in school, giving rise to the possibility of a transmission.
"I feel that my son has a right to decide whether or not to tell other people his status. We have kept it a secret until now, but the guilt is still there," says B, who adopted Danial (not his real name) when he was just 2.

At that time, B was a volunteer with an organisation working to find suitable foster families for HIV-positive babies whose parents had died of AIDS.

He interviewed potential families to decide whether they had the right personality, attitude and behaviour in handling children with HIV.There was little knowledge and understanding of AIDS then, even though people knew what HIV was, said B.
A married couple was supposed to take Danial in, but over the months, in the process of thinking and rethinking about their decision, the wife changed her mind."When the wife suddenly said, 'I don't think I want to take this kid,' we withdrew the couple's application."The kid was left hanging in hospital for two years. There was a need to place him with a family. No home would take him in and he couldn't be staying in the hospital forever."By then, I had grown attached to him and we decided to adopt the child," says B, who is still actively involved in HIV-related work.

That was 12 years ago. Danial, now 14 and studying in a secondary school, is "totally healthy, active and happy", said his dad."He looks normal. No one can tell that he is positive without us informing them."Danial's secret is still intact today."

Every time my son enrols into a school, there is a health form that I need to fill in. "I always feel guilty as a parent (to not disclose his status), and the fact that he has to go to the hospital all the time makes it hard to keep things under wraps."I was torn inside, not knowing what to tell the school."In the end, B informed the secondary school teacher that his son has a blood disorder that requires treatment in the hospital every three months.All the sleepless nights , the white lies and constant worries that plagued him were worth B's sacrifice if it meant his son did not have to relive the experiences he had in his primary school."It was all done to protect him from further discrimination."

When Danial was in kindergarten, B did not let the school operators know of his condition because he knew the kindergarten would not accept his son for who he was.But when Danial turned 7 and was ready for primary school, B could not live with the guilt and so he informed the principal."I think that was a mistake."

When my son was in Year Two, he cut himself while playing. That was the time when the whole school panicked. Everyone was afraid to touch him."The school had to call B in to tend to Danial himself. It shocked B that the teachers reacted that way, because it showed that they did not know how HIV transmission was possible.

The health department was later called in to explain to the teachers about HIV.That was a one-off dramatic incident, but throughout his four years in school, Danial received "special treatment" -- he was not allowed to play games or play an active role in sports.It wasn't good for the teachers to be so protective of him, said B, because they did not give him a chance to participate."He did ask himself why he was not allowed to join the sports. He also mentioned that whenever he played with other kids, they asked him not to play rough with them."Somehow, other parents got to know of my child's case. But the good thing is no one that I know of asked to have my child removed from the school."Academic-wise, the treatment Danial received was not too far off from what he experienced during sports lessons."The teachers didn't pay much attention to him. "They treated him like a kid who didn't want to study, letting him just play in the corner."

Such an attitude would have a psychological effect on any child, said B, who encouraged Danial to share his stories with others.Right from the start, B had no intention of hiding Danial's condition from himself or that he was adopted.Even when he was in nursery, B started talking to Danial about HIV by telling him stories from books on HIV- positive children.
"We always try to empower the child from the beginning, to arm him against stigma and discrimination."I encourage my son to share with his friends, those he feels that he can trust, but so far he hasn't told anyone of his status."And now that he is at an age where he could become interested in girls, we talk about sex and condoms. Education is necessary.

"We also talk about death and dying. I've taken him to see how people die of AIDS, from the time when they are hospitalised till the time they are buried. "He has some ideas, but he is afraid to die. I wish that one day, my son would be fully empowered by his HIV status and would be a spokesman for others."


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