A Limburg school attempts to break the HIV taboo


With patience and information, Zonhoven school administrators are trying to allay fears after the enrolment of an HIV-positive child

Children and parents were involved in awareness-raising project

When an HIV-positive toddler enrolled at the Limburg school De Horizon, both teachers and parents were worried. To provide answers to their questions and to avoid stigmatisation of the child, school administrators decided to launch an awareness-raising project.

De Horizon principal Marc Broeders remembers being puzzled when the mother of the child explained the situation to him at the beginning of the 2012 school year. The mother gave him permission to take the matter up with the school board and teaching staff. The school administrators’ concerns primarily revolved around ensuring the safety of the other children, “in a case where the child would, for example, have a little wound,” he explains.

The doctors who were treating the HIV-positive child – a three-year-old adopted from Tanzania – reassured the school staff; the risk of transmission was minimal since the virus was hardly detectable in the blood and completely under control. Still, administrators of the school in Zonhoven decided to enforce strict hygiene rules, and teachers were required to wear gloves when treating any child’s wounds or staunching any kind of bleeding.

Although the school didn’t inform other parents in order to maintain the child’s privacy, word about the situation eventually got around town. “Understandably, many parents were distressed,” says Broeders. 

Calming the waters

With a go-ahead from the mother of the HIV-positive child, De Horizon organised an info meeting for parents to calm the waters. During the session, Leuven University Hospital expert Jaan Toelen explained that playing with the child posed no danger to the other children whatsoever. 

Parents ordered their children to avoid contact with the HIV positive child

- Marc Broeders

Still, according to Broeders, some children said they no longer wanted to play with the child in the subsequent weeks. “Their parents had ordered them to avoid contact,” the principal says.

De Horizon administrators also found inspiration in a children’s book by Dutch writer Hijltje Vink, who also adopted a daughter with HIV. Brenda Has a Dragon in Her Blood, which has been translated into English. The little girl Brenda is in good shape when the dragon (symbolising the HIV virus) sleeps, but gets sick when the dragon wakes up. Luckily, medicine (and warriors) can keep the dragon asleep.

In the hope of sparking a broad debate about HIV, the entire primary school embarked on a project, creating their own picture book based on Vink's story. Two professional illustrators helped the students with the drawings. In May, the school presented the fruits of their labour at the Zonhoven cultural centre, and the book has since been distributed to several other schools. The school is currently also looking for a publisher to reach a larger network of schools.

Implementation of the project was financially supported by the Flemish cultural subsidies project dynamo3, the educational programme Kleur Bekennen (Showing Your True Colours) and Stichting Lezen (Reading Foundation).

With Positief op school (Positive at School), sexual health centre Sensoa also offers a roadmap for schools with questions about best practices in integrating HIV-positive children.