Talking about AIDS
by Karen PlattMy eight-year-old son and his buddies often poke and push and tease each other. It’s nothing that I worry about—really all good-natured fun; just boys being boys. But recently I overheard them taunting each other, saying things like “You’ve got AIDS.” I have no idea where they would have heard the term, and I’m pretty certain my son has no idea what AIDS is. Frankly, I don’t know that much about it myself and while I think this is something I should talk to him about, I have no idea what to say.
No doubt I am dating myself but I remember when kids had “cooties,” those mysterious critters easily cured by the all-powerful and usually somewhat sadistic “cootie shot” administered by an older sibling or bigger, stronger peer. Cooties, AIDS...in the broad spectrum of eight-year-old understanding, they are probably synonymous. However, as you have wisely surmised, unlike the fictitious cooties, AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is very real and something worthy of discussion. Many young children have heard the word “AIDS”—they might be aware that it’s a disease but they may also have a lot of mis-information, if they have any information at all.
It’s always good to begin a talk by asking some form of a question rather than launching into a lecture. “I heard you guys yelling at Billy that he had AIDS. I’m just wondering where you heard about AIDS. Can you tell me what you know?”
Check out what your child has heard, if anything. The mis-information that kids pass on to each other about things related to sex and health could fill an encyclopedia. With AIDS, the half- or un-truths often have to do with death—such as “If I cut myself I’ll get AIDS and die,” or with sexual orientation, as in “Gay people have AIDS.”
Lots of people—kids and adults alike— don’t understand AIDS and its precursor, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). It’s important that both you and your child have accurate information. You can tell an eight-year-old that AIDS is a serious disease that makes people very sick. It is caused by a the virus, the HIV. HIV infection is different from other viruses like colds or the flu. You can’t get HIV by hugging, holding hands, falling in the playground, sitting next to or visiting a person who has HIV. People only get HIV when their body fluids (blood, semen and the “pre-semen” that lubricates the tip of the penis, vaginal secretions and breast milk) mix with the body fluids of someone who has the virus.
These body fluids can be passed from someone who has HIV through sexual intercourse; sharing needles and syringes (for tattooing, body piercing or intravenous drug use); or accidental contact with the blood of the person who has the virus. HIV can also be passed during a blood transfusion but the risk is very small (less than one in a million) because all donated blood in North America is tested for HIV.
HIV can eventually damage a person’s immune system (the part that fights off disease) so much that it can no longer fight off germs that enter the body. When this happens, the person has AIDS and may get very sick.
Despite what many people believe, there is no cure for AIDS. Yes, people do die from the disease, but there are many new medicines that can keep people with HIV healthy for a long time and ways to prevent its spread. You can’t catch it like a cold virus, so you don’t have to avoid someone who has HIV or AIDS. But since HIV can be passed through sexual activity, it’s important to talk with all kids about self-esteem, decision-making, values and condom use; condoms are one very good way to help prevent the spread of the virus. And remember, “the talk” is never just one talk.
In order to make sexually healthy decisions, kids need to know about sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS and pregnancy. But it’s also important they know that their sexuality is a wonderful thing. We want to empower them with self-respect and knowledge. More than anything else, this will help them make smart choices, stay safe, healthy and grow into a fulfilling sexuality.Karen Platt, MA, is a sexual health educator who works with parents and youth. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.