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Croatia Town, Peers Shun Orphan With HIV

September 21, 2003

KUTINA, Croatia (AP) _ As the United Nations holds a special session on the AIDS pandemic Monday, the case of an 8-year-old girl underscores the myths and prejudices that persist about the disease. In this central Croatian town, and elsewhere around the world, AIDS still often leads to ostracism.

Ela couldn’t wait for school to start and be with her schoolmates.

But Ela is infected with HIV, and since school started this month, she is one of only four pupils who are showing up for class. The other children are being kept home by fearful parents.

``The government, its institutions, the church and society in general must take on the burden of breaking down the walls of fear and ignorance,″ said Mirjana Krizmanic, a psychologist. ``It’s a question of civilization and progress.″

Croatia’s government has sent a team of medical experts to Kutina to hold daily seminars on AIDS and explain how the virus is spread through sex, the sharing of needles with an infected person or blood transfusions.

But the lectures have drawn only a few parents. The others remain defiant, threatening to pull children out of the school permanently if officials try to force their kids to share a classroom with Ela.

Ela and her sister, Nina, 6, who has not started school yet, were both born infected with HIV. Their parents, who died while the girls were infants, were heroin addicts and became infected by sharing contaminated needles.

The Oblak family, which took in the girls, said Ela couldn’t wait for classes to start at Kutina Elementary School.

``She was so excited about her first day,″ said Branko Oblak, her foster father. ``She would prance around the house with her backpack full of coloring books and crayons, asking impatiently when school would finally start.″

``Now we have to brace ourselves for the fight to keep her in school,″ he said, refusing to permit journalists to interview or photograph her.

Ana Jerbic, whose son Ivan is among the children being kept home from class, said she is just as determined to keep Ela away from her boy.

``My boy is like Dennis the Menace,″ she said. ``He’s too hyperactive for me to feel safe.″

Jerbic said doctors told her it is unlikely other children could become infected with HIV through casual contact with Ela at school. But, she added, ``then they tell us they (the kids) have to constantly wash their hands and not bite each other or play with sharp pencils.″

``I just don’t want to take any risks,″ she said.

While some parents already have enrolled their children at other schools in the area, most are hoping to find a solution in talks with the headmaster and local officials.

``The problem is that they are demanding segregation,″ said the principal, Ivan Corak. ``As a professional and as a moral human being in this day and age, that’s just not an option.″

With a few exceptions, children in other classes have remained in school.

Oblak said he, his wife and their own 16-year-old daughter are hoping their love for Ela will keep her from feeling rejection.

``We have to do everything we can to make sure this doesn’t leave a stigma,″ he said. ``It’s a tough job, but we are just going to have to make people change like we did before.″

Last year, Ela met the same kind of reaction when she began primary school in the coastal town of Kastel and was forced to study in the library alone with a tutor. Eventually, though, she won the hearts of most of her schoolmates and was gradually integrated into a normal class.

Oblak said the family didn’t think they’d have to relive that trauma when they moved back to Kutina, their hometown, this summer.

Krizmanic, the psychologist, said Croatia’s relatively small number of confirmed HIV infections might explain why the disease remains so misunderstood here. Fewer than 300 Croats are HIV-positive, she said, a tiny blip among the estimated 36 million infected worldwide.

``Sensitivity is often related to exposure,″ Krizmanic said.

A few teenagers in Kutina have taken up Ela’s cause. Angry at what they see as adult paranoia, they are manning a stall at the town mall to collect signatures in support of Ela and hand out informational pamphlets that read: ``AIDS _ don’t die ignorant!″

``It’s not a concert with mega rock stars, but it’s something,″ said Mladen Kuric, 17.