BEIJING (AFP) - The plight of a Chinese boy infected with HIV, reportedly pushed to leave his home by 200 villagers who signed a petition, sparked intense online soul-searching in the country on Thursday.
The case has highlighted the stigma attached to HIV in China, where many sufferers face widespread discrimination.
The boy's guardian, his grandfather, was among those in the south-western Sichuan province who signed an agreement to expel the eight-year-old to "protect villagers' health", the Global Times reported.
The newspaper, with close ties to the ruling Communist Party, said the boy contracted the virus from his mother, and was diagnosed when he received treatment for minor injuries in 2011.
Previous reports said the boy - who was given the pseudonym Kunkun by Chinese media - was refused admission to local schools and villagers would avoid contact with him.
"Nobody plays (with me), I play alone," Kunkun said, according to a report Wednesday on the website of the People's Daily newspaper, the official mouthpiece of Communist Party.
The website also said Kunkun was referred to as a "time bomb" in the petition.
"The villagers sympathise with him, he is innocent, and only a small child," Mr Wang Yishu, party chief of Shufangya village, told the website.
"But his HIV and Aids are too scary for us."
The Global Times said the boy's mother left the family in 2006, while his father "lost contact" after Kunkun's condition was diagnosed.
Kunkun sneaked into a specially convened meeting held earlier this month by villagers to discuss how they would banish him, the report added.
High-ranking officials from the township government said "legally speaking" the boy could not be expelled, and that he has the same rights as other villagers, the newspaper said.
"Officials plan to visit the village and speak with the villagers", it added, while the People's Daily website said "ideological work" would be carried out in the village. It was unclear late on Thursday whether Kunkun was still in his village.
The case sparked much debate on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo, where it was the most widely discussed topic on Thursday morning, with many asking how people could be so cold-hearted towards the boy.
"Why was he ruthlessly neglected, it is so unfair to him," one poster said.
"This is because the Chinese population cannot get enough education, causing ignorance and panic," said another.
China's National Health and Family Planning Commission said earlier this month that by the end of October, a total of 497,000 people in China had been diagnosed with HIV/Aids since the country's first case in 1985.
China has a population of 1.36 billion.
Discrimination against those with HIV/Aids remains an issue at schools, hospitals, workplaces and other establishments across the country, a factor that experts say hampers efforts to diagnose and treat the virus.
Knowledge of HIV/Aids in worse in poor, rural areas, such as the community Kunkun is from, experts say.
Attempts by the authorities to educate these populations about discrimination often fail, a campaigner who would only give his surname as Tang told AFP.
"The publicity campaign is not strong enough to reach the rural areas and villages and that's why there is more discrimination there," said Mr Tang, a community coordinator at the Kunming office of Aids advocacy group Aizhixing.
"Personally I don't think such situations would exist in cities," he added. "People in rural areas know little about civil rights and they have a poor sense of the disease.
"We will continue using our network to speak out, meanwhile we hope the government could do more as well."