Happy World AIDS Day! No, that doesn’t sound right…

1 12 2011

I was born in 1984. (There’s a book about it.) I grew up learning about HIV/AIDS. I read now about the years leading up to that point. Ronald Reagan refusing to mention to word, activists desperately trying to draw attention to the fact that people were dying horrible deaths by the thousands.

When I was a kid, we were past the “won’t anyone talk about it?!” point, and had moved onto combatting hysteria. People were scared, and when people are scared, they’re likely to believe stupid shit. Shun others first, ask questions later.

I remember watching a Nick News special (Linda Ellerby? Remember those? Anyone?) on the subject. Magic Johnson sat with a bunch of kids and talked about how not only gay people get HIV, not everyone who has HIV has AIDS, and you can’t catch it from hugging someone. A similar topic was tackled on Mr. Belvedere (Right? Oh, come on!) with one of Wesley’s friends.

The same year Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive, my aunt was discouraged from letting her infant son crawl around on the hospital bed her best friend was dying in. (She didn’t listen.) A few years later, fourth grade SJ got into a heated debate with a classmate over whether or not you can, in fact, catch AIDS from a toilet seat. (I hope he’s reading this–suck it, Rick, I was right!) And around that same time, I experienced the righteous indignation that would become so familiar to me during a family viewing of “Philadelphia.” (My parents had weird movie nights.)

It’s strange to talk to kids about HIV/AIDS as a social worker now. It’s still a part of their lives, and it’s still a very real risk factor. Many of the people we work with are in higher risk groups than the general population.

In college, I indulged my innate need for social work by volunteering at a camp for children with family members living with HIV/AIDS. As an intern, a mother came to me for help in telling her ten year old son that both of his parents are HIV positive.

That was not overwhelming in the slightest.

For most of the kids and teens, though, it’s not really on their radar. Bringing up this epidemic as something that could easily affect them or someone they love, as something they need to be aware of and protect themselves against, is met with strange resistance.

A lot of them don’t seem to know what I’m talking about. They’ve maybe heard of it, they know AIDS isn’t good, but they have no real understanding of how it’s transmitted, that HIV causes AIDS, and that they should be wearing condoms around their necks à la Blossom, just in case.

I watched a lot of TV in the ’90s.

A lot of them think of HIV/AIDS as an African concern. Not something for us healthy Americans to fret about. Or, they think it’s been cured. At least, kind of. I mean, don’t you see all those prescription drug ads on the bus shelter? And haven’t you heard of Magic Johnson?

If our young people aren’t taking this seriously, we really only have ourselves to blame.

At the youth center where I worked, I frequently had to reprimand our high school and college workers for cleaning children’s cuts or putting band-aids on them without gloves.

This child of the ’80s does not touch bodily fluids without a full hazmat suit.

People acted as though I thought badly of the children we served, or thought they were dirty. Or that comforting the children immediately was more important than our own health and safety.  I was blown away by this mindset. I was always taught that you treat everyone as if they’re infected. I’m not going to let someone bleed to death, but I’m pretty sure that the eight seconds (twelve if I’m sweaty) it takes me to slip on a latex glove isn’t going to kill a child or irrevocably damage their self esteem.

Why would those kids who saw that behavior think it wasn’t OK to make an exception too, when it came to safe sex, or some other risk?

I went to the Dragon Lady my former supervisor for help when that mother I mentioned above came to me. This mother and I spent a lot of time talking about the stress and anxiety knowing she was positive had on her. She talked about being afraid of death. My former supervisor was mystified. What is she so afraid of? It’s HIV, not AIDS. Isn’t she on medication? Hasn’t she heard of Magic Johnson?!

I sometimes take for granted the fact that I grew up being educated on this subject at home, at school, and through awesome family sitcoms. Kids today don’t. And they’re still at risk. They need us to remind them of that, and to not stop teaching them how to be safe and smart.

I’m thrilled to pieces that we’re beyond the denial and hysteria (for the most part.) But it seems that we might have entered the “just shut up” phase. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that I’m entirely against that.



4 responses

1 12 2011

I think the problem is the stigma phase was so awful to people that there was pressure to normalize HIV/AIDS to relieve that. The thought that the disease was a death sentence kept people from going to get tested, so there was pressure to say “Hey, there’s meds to control it, so you DO want to know about it!” Then both of those changes pushed the pendulum into the “Eh, it’s no big deal” phase that we’re in now.

Even during the scare phase folks didn’t quite get it. I realized how clueless I was when, in the early 90’s, one of my group home residents came to me with a cut on her hand and I was happy to pull out the first aid kit. I reached for her hand and she yanked it back, saying, “No, give ME the cotton ball, I’ll wash the cut.” I knew right away that she was following the universal precations that I’d forgotten about, and then later I met a member of her family and understood why she was so conscious of them when I, the professional do-gooder, was not. I’m hopeful that universal precautions are more reflexive now than they were 20 years ago.

1 12 2011

*precautions even

2 12 2011

I did an intake with a 17yo kid the other day who is HIV positive (let’s not even get into the trauma around how he became infected) who told me he had gotten out of the hospital last month. Psychiatric stay? No. He was hospitalized after drinking BLEACH because someone told him that’s how you “get rid of AIDS”………..


(i still have no words.)

2 12 2011
Vetnita in MN

Thank you for the article. I was so mystified yesterday when no one even brought up World AIDS day. Weird enough with my busy friends, but I am a social worker working with individuals in Nursing Facilities. I currently have one client with HIV that I know of. I have two friends who are survivors on long term medications. AIDS isn’t over yet! I feel like I need to bang people’s heads in the wall. My son (10) and I have discussed AIDS and its history and he was the only kid in his class who knew anything other than you can get it from gay sex!!!! Breast Cancer is real and scary but how did that become the only deadly disease? AAGGGHHH!

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