Civil rights groups and foreign experts yesterday urged the government to take action to protect children with HIV from discrimination.
The number of children infected with HIV in Taiwan is growing rapidly, with most of them having been infected by their mothers, many of whom are drug addicts, during labor, the Sustainable Taiwan Cultural Foundation, a non-governmental organization promoting issues concerning the country's sustainability, said at a forum.
Given that there are about 400 children infected with HIV in the country, public and family support systems for them remain insufficient, the foundation's vice executive officer Yu Yung-chih (游湧志) said, adding that some of them were even denied the right to attend school.
"This should serve as a wake-up call [for the government]," said Donald Morisky, a guest professor from the Department of Community Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Morisky said that Taiwan's efforts to educate the public to understand and respect people who are infected with HIV remained inadequate.
He added that in the US, the use of medication has been 99 percent effective in preventing babies from being infected by their mothers. Early treatment for children who test HIV positive has also helped to prevent them from developing symptoms, he said.
Drawing on his own experience, he told the attendees that there was a mandated training program in the US for people who may have direct contact with infected children, such as teachers, the police, firefighters and medical staff, so as to develop "public respect and compassion" for them.
He said that to help the public fully understand the issue, laws should be passed to guarantee the rights of the children.
The US enacted such a law, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, in 1990.
Ryan White, a teenager with hemophilia from Indiana who became infected with AIDS, fought discrimination in the 1980s so that he could attend school. The federal act now provides health and public services for individuals living with the disease.
Schools that violate the act can lose their licenses or government funding, Morisky said, adding that individuals who discriminated against the infected children could be penalized.
Morisky said if the government did not do something to protect children who are HIV positive, "not only will the lives of the children be at stake, the lives of children with other disabilities will be at stake in the future, too."
Ms Yang, a widow whose husband died of the illness in 1996, told the attendees that she was not infected by her husband during the 15 years they spent together because she had realized the importance of knowledge.
She said they were able to have some good times together, but she still feels the shadow of AIDS because the public does not take the right attitude toward those who are infected.
"Discrimination comes from fear and fear comes from ignorance," Yu said, adding that the foundation should invite people who have direct contact with the infected to share their experiences to promote public understanding.