A group of HIV-positive children trying to attend school in southern India have faced a fresh setback with parents of their classmates pulling their kids out of class, officials said Monday.
The move was the latest twist in a six-month battle that has highlighted the stigma suffered in India by those living with HIV and AIDS -- in this case one boy and four girls aged between five and 11.
The children appeared to have won a victory last week when the Christian school in southern Kerala state that threw them out six months ago allowed them to return to class -- but it was short-lived.
"Among the 65 students on our rolls, only three children came to school on June 21 and the next day none turned up," principal Elsamma Mani told AFP.
"Today also the school remained closed as no students turned up to attend class."
Officials have assured parents that HIV is not transferred by sitting next to or touching an infected person, but suspicion remains.
"I will not let my children attend classes with the HIV-positive children, come what may," an irate mother who had pulled her kids from the school told the NDTV news channel Monday.
Another father, speaking to AFP, questioned why the shelter that houses the kids had not admitted them into its own school if there was no risk of transmission.
The school's parent-teacher association has said it will not send children to class in protest against state government pressure over the affair, which has seen the establishment threatened with the loss of its permit to operate.
The kids were first "outed" when a local paper published photographs of them attending an event on world AIDS day in December, a report in the Hindustan Times said, prompting other parents to call for their expulsion.
Three of the five children are infected with HIV but all were living in a shelter for infected mothers.
Officials in Kerala state -- reputed to be one of the country's most progressive -- said they would continue to work to make sure the children were accepted.
"I hope that the villagers will realise their mistake and accept the children," said Kerala education minister M.A. Baby.
India, with a billion-plus population, has 5.7 million people infected with HIV -- the world's highest in absolute numbers per country.
Officials said this month that under new data being compiled, the number of HIV-positive could be as low as 3.4 million.