A series of private schools have refused to let a leading children's HIV charity use their facilities for a summer camp, raising fears of widespread discrimination.
The Children's HIV Association (Chiva) made bookings with the schools that were later cancelled after it was told the young people attending would be HIV positive.
The camp, for 100 young people aged 13 to 17, plus 60 volunteers, was scheduled to take place when the schools' own pupils would have been away. But the charity, an association of health experts, struggled to find a school that would hire out its facilities.
One head told Chiva he would not allow his school to be used because parents would not like it. Another, a Christian faith school, agreed to the booking with Chiva but cancelled after being told of the children's HIV status.
The school said it had realised it could not offer Chiva the sole occupancy it needed. But the charity obtained a number of email communications between the head and bursar entitled "health matters", suggesting this was not the real reason for the offer being withdrawn.
And a third school said it could not comply with the charity's request for confidentiality - it had asked that only a couple of key senior staff be informed of who was hiring the school in order to protect the identity of the young people attending.
Paddy McMaster, chair of Chiva and consultant paediatrician at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, said: "Generally, there is discrimination and a lot of misunderstanding about HIV in schools.
"With the summer camp, it's not possible to prove discrimination but that is the most likely explanation given the sequence of events and the responses we got.
"What can be perceived by some schools as a justifiable reason for not wanting to include children with HIV is, in fact, discrimination. We want to get across the facts about the risk of transmission so that appropriate decisions are made."
Dr McMaster said children with HIV are encouraged not to discuss their infection with their peers because of the stigma still attached to it.
This year is the first in which the charity has organised a summer camp. "It allows them to be in a community where they can talk freely and see they are not alone," he said.
The camp, which is funded by the Elton John Aids Foundation (EJAF), is now due to go ahead in another school. It will include sessions on rights, sexual health and medication.
Anne Aslett, executive director of EJAF, said: "It's horrifying to think that school trustees, teachers and even parents in this country might still be so misinformed about HIVAIDS that HIV-positive children could be stigmatised and discriminated against."
The most recent available statistics, from 2009, showed that 1,161 young people were receiving paediatric HIV care. A further 212 had transferred to adult HIV care. But the rate of transmission from mothers with HIV to their babies has fallen dramatically. It used to stand at about 25 per cent, but because of interventions during pregnancy, it is now about 1 per cent. There is no obligation for young people who are HIV positive to inform their schools.