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US clown fails to dispel Romanian AIDS fears


SINGURENI, Romania (Reuters) - US AIDS awareness campaigner Patch Adams seemed to be making inroads with villagers at a picnic for AIDS orphans in Romania.

Wearing the clown getup made famous by actor Robin Williams in the movie based on Adams's life, he evoked gales of laughter with his jokes, even though they had to be translated.

He enchanted the people of Singureni, a village with a population of 3,100 located 40 km (25 miles) south of Bucharest, by dancing to a Romanian folk tune with an elderly gypsy woman.

"The role of a clown and the role of a doctor are very similar--to give a vision for the possible and to relieve suffering," said the 56-year-old doctor during his August visit, which was sponsored by the Italian "Babies in Emergency" AIDS foundation.

"The foundation brought me to the children and I want to bring them to you," grey-haired Adams told the villagers outside the local office.

But entertaining a crowd on a hot summer's day in rural Romania, and dispelling peoples' ingrained fears of the orphans who became infected with the AIDS virus under squalid conditions during the communist government of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, are two different things.

"I don't want my six-year-old boy to have as school mate a child with AIDS when he starts school in September," said George Grejdan, a father of two and member of the village council of Singureni, which means "lonely" in Romanian.

"We feel sorry for them (the children with AIDS), we have nothing against them, but we don't want them near our children," he said.

Most of Romania's 9,000 children sick with full-blown AIDS are doubly cursed--by the disease and the isolation it brings with it.

Abandoned by their parents, ostracised by neighbours and barred from schools, they live in orphanages, many of which are built on side streets in remote areas, hidden from the public eye.

"I ask you to let these (AIDS-sick) children into your hearts and let us show the world that love is bigger than all other forces," Adams told some 200 farmers at the picnic in Singureni.

Organisations and charities from across the world rushed to Romania with aid after Ceausescu's overthrow revealed orphanages packed with thousands of under-nourished and ailing children left to die in rusty beds.

Poor sanitation, the lack of disposable syringes and unscreened blood caused nearly 9,000 children to become infected with the deadly virus. Almost 2,300 children with AIDS have died since 1985, when Romania reported its first case.

Health authorities said 240 children, born in the waning days of the communist era in 1988-89, tested HIV-positive last year--meaning more AIDS cases in the future.

"For 40 years I've been a free doctor for the poor and a professional clown. I cannot imagine to refuse to care for people," Adams told the farmers.

Wearing a yellow and a blue stocking, trousers in bright colours, oversized clown shoes and a red gum nose, Adams hoped to set an example to bring healthy and sick children together.

For one week, he played with the 30 sick children, aged between three and 14, who live in three wooden houses at "The Family Home" orphanage, built six years ago in the backyard of Singureni's hospital for infectious diseases. It was an effort to draw in the community, to show them that AIDS victims are human, too.

"Come and see my house," said Georgiana, a nine-year-old girl grabbing a visitor's hand. In one building, called "The Moon House," she jumped on a small cot, her face creased in a big smile, shouting: "This is mine." "We also have a TV and a kitchen with a big refrigerator," added Georgiana, walking down a corridor to Sister Margareta's quarters--she is one of the four Romanian Catholic nuns taking care of the children.

Although living conditions for most of Romania's 100,000 abandoned children, including those disabled and sick with AIDS, have improved in recent years, their main problem remains to find a way back into the community.

"The villagers can see that touching and kissing and loving these children is not harming me but only strengthening me to work for peace and justice and care," Adams said, while some of the sick children played with his nose and his long ponytail.

"Fear and ignorance are keeping the villagers away from these children. My wish is to open the gates and let life come into the orphanage," he added.

But only minutes after applauding Adams's passionate speech and laughing loudly at his jokes, most of the villagers said they did not want their children to go near those stricken with AIDS.

Grejdan said the local council refused to let the village teachers go to the orphanage school--improvised in several rooms on the first floor of the local hospital.

"No parent in the village wants our teachers to go and hold classes with the children with AIDS," said Grejdan.

"An accident might happen and our children might be infected too. You must understand it is not out of spite that we do not accept these children to be around ours," he added.

Starting in September, when Romania begins a new school year, the sick children will be taken out for the first time from their enclave at the Singureni orphanage.

They will go to their own school, in a bright white-painted two-story house in the middle of the village, some two km (one mile) from their home.

The problem yet to be solved is to find teachers willing to teach them. One of the village's primary school teachers, who taught at the orphanage for two days last year, said he would not go back.

"These children are less developed and very undisciplined. I could not cope with them," said Adrian Dobra, who said he feared getting infected. "Rumours in the village are that the children stick people with a needle to get them infected too and I do not want to risk it," said Dobra, father of two children.

"It takes more than an American to change our hearts."


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Information in this article was accurate in August 24, 2000. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.