– Danielle, diagnosed HIV positive at age 17
When she was 17-years-old, Danielle found out she was HIV positive. She contracted the virus because she had sex without a condom, despite warnings from her teachers and even her mom.
“She always used to tell me, ‘You’re going to catch something you can’t get rid of.’ And I did,” Danielle says.
Danielle, who doesn’t want us to use her real name, says when she got the AIDS virus, it helped her to remember that she was a mother.
“I was scared. I was thinking about… first thing I thought about was I was going to die. I wanted to kill myself, but I had to keep strong for my son.”
One in four teens will contract an STD, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And most have learned about condoms in sex education classes.
But as AIDS educator, Zina Age explains, teens often think it won’t happen to them, “They still think that they are invincible, they still think that they are not going to get the virus, and some people think, especially children, that there is medication that they can take if they actually get the virus.”
She says there is so much misinformation about AIDS that education is crucial.
Still, it didn’t work for Danielle. “I knew all about safe sex and all that. But I didn’t listen. I was hard-headed. I wanted to do my own thing,” she says.
Ideally, experts say, abstinence is safest, but if you think your child is sexually active, or will soon be, an open and honest talk about risk can help.
“If they ask you a specific question, they are ready for the answer,” says Age. “Because if you don’t answer that question, they are going to go get it from somewhere else, and a lot of times that information is incorrect.”
Tips for Parents
Teens are very concerned about possible infection with the HIV virus, and desperately want to know more about ways to prevent the disease. Parents can be an invaluable source of information about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases in general. Unfortunately, some parents still do not feel comfortable discussing issues associated with sex and sexual intercourse with their children. Given the deadly nature of this particular disease, it is imperative that parents find a way that is comfortable for them to discuss this subject with their children and teens.
What adolescents need to know in order to make decisions that will protect them from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is typically more extensive and detailed than what most younger children need to know. For example, because HIV is spread through unprotected sexual intercourse or sharing drug needles and syringes, teens need to learn about abstinence and, depending on the family’s values, about sex, condoms, drug use, hygiene, etc. Because alcohol and drugs can cloud thinking, teens need to learn that using these substances can cause them to make decisions that can put them at risk.
Teens also must learn to distinguish myths from facts about HIV infection and AIDS. They need to learn about the issues that the disease poses for society, such as the importance of opposing prejudice and discrimination. Discussing all of these things will help equip teens to make decisions that can prevent the spread of HIV infection and AIDS.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, parents initiating a conversation with their teen about HIV and AIDS might consider including the following points in that conversation:
Provide the adolescent with a definition of AIDS. For example, explain that AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It is a condition in which the body’s immune system breaks down. Because the immune system fails, a person with AIDS typically develops a variety of life-threatening illnesses that almost always prove fatal.
Give a definition of HIV infection. The adolescent needs to understand that AIDS is caused by a virus that scientists call human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Once a person is infected, he or she can infect others, even if no symptoms are present. The fact that other STD’s share this characteristic provides an excellent opportunity to expand the conversation to include other sexually transmitted diseases should the opportunity feel right. Point out that a special blood test can detect HIV.
Explain how HIV is transmitted from one person to another. The adolescent needs to clearly understand that there are two primary ways that people become infected with HIV:
by engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral) with an infected person; or
by sharing drug needles or syringes with an infected person.
A parent might want to point out that women who are infected with HIV can pass it on to their babies during pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding. The fact that some people have become infected through receiving blood transfusions might also be pointed out. Although these cases are rare, the fact that a parent knows about them and mentions them can only add to their credibility in discussing such an important subject.
Explain how to reduce the risk for HIV infection from sex. The easiest way to avoid getting HIV from sex is to not have sex. Abstinence is the only sure protection. This may seem simplistic in the face of the significant rates of sexual activity reported by teens in today’s society. However, it does provide an opening to discuss some of the values that your family stands for in regard to premarital sex. Reinforce the fact that if the adolescent does chose to have sexual intercourse, they should not feel ashamed to wait until they are in a long-term, mutually faithful relationship, such as marriage, with an uninfected partner.
Remind them of some of the realistic values of choosing not to have intercourse including:
Virtually guaranteeing their safety from all sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection. Point out that approximately every 11 seconds a teen in the U.S. gets a sexually transmitted disease.
Providing the teen with additional time to be sure they are physically and emotionally ready to engage in a sexual relationship.
Providing them with more time to learn and understand more about the physical and emotional aspects of sexual relationships.
Avoiding unwanted pregnancy. Some sources report that approximately every 30 seconds a teen in the U.S. gets pregnant.
If a teen makes the decision to engage in sexual intercourse outside of a mutually faithful, long-term relationship with an uninfected partner, it is imperative that they use a latex condom whenever having any type of sexual intercourse. Remind them that any partner who would refuse to use a condom is putting them at risk for catching diseases that may be fatal, incurable, or both. Considering this fact might just help the teen to battle against feeling pressured to participate in sexual activity about which he or she is unsure.
Tell the teen straight away that there are no circumstances under which they can assume it is safe to have sexual intercourse with people who may be infected with HIV. This includes people who have:
had multiple or anonymous sex partners
had any sexually transmitted diseases
The adolescent also needs to know that there is no way to tell, short of a blood test, whether a person is infected with HIV. They have to assume that every potential sexual partner may have been exposed to or infected with the HIV virus.
Finally, reinforce the critical importance of avoiding making decisions about sexual intercourse while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. These substances can cloud their judgment and cause them to take risks that put them in danger of becoming infected with HIV.
Kaiser Family Foundation
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
Bradley Hasbro Research Center