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Rumors About AIDS Shuts Down Sri Lankan School

After rumors a Sri Lankan boy had AIDS, his classmates stopped showing up to school.

Sri Lankan prisoners hold placards as they take part in a gathering to mark World AIDS Day at a prison complex in Colombo on December 1, 2013. Some 1,808 HIV positive cases have reportedly been identified in the country between 1987 and the end of November 2013. AFP PHOTO/ Ishara S.KODIKARA        (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Sri Lankan prisoners hold placards as they take part in a gathering to mark World AIDS Day at a prison complex in Colombo on December 1, 2013. Some 1,808 HIV positive cases have reportedly been identified in the country between 1987 and the end of November 2013. AFP PHOTO/ Ishara S.KODIKARA (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Fewer than 0.1 percent of Sri Lanka’s more than 20 million people live with HIV. But the relatively low risk of contracting the virus that causes AIDS has contributed in part to Sri Lankans’ general misinformation about it — and how it’s passed from one person to another.

That was made obvious this week when all but one of 186 pupils at a school in the northwestern city of Kurunegala stopped showing up for class after rumors circulated that a 6-year-old child was infected with AIDS. The only one to show up was that child himself.

According to the BBC, parents began removing their children from the school even though the 6-year-old has a health certificate that proves he does not have AIDS. This was the first school to accept the boy after other schools misunderstood the cause of his father’s death, thinking he‘d died from AIDS. That prompted suspicion the son was also infected.

His mother, Chandani De Soysa, told the BBC that was a misdiagnosis, and that she has proven time and again that neither she nor her son are infected with the deadly autoimmune disease. When her son was finally accepted to this primary school, De Soysa thought they had finally gotten a break.

“He went to the class and played with other kids,” she said. “But then suddenly all the parents came and took their children away.”

The incident has sparked concern that adults sending their children to the school are largely misinformed about the risk of AIDS, and are ostracizing a healthy child over unsubstantiated rumors. According to a 2012 World Bank study, high levels of stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in Sri Lanka have discouraged people “who fear they may be infected from seeking health care or from being tested.”

School officials, for their part, seem willing to remedy the situation, despite parents who have been protesting outside the school gates each morning.

Regional Education Director Saman Wijesekara said they “are thinking of having an educational session to parents to solve this issue.”

Photo Credit: Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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