AIDS: How to Talk to Kids and What They Should Know

All parents want to keep their children safe. Child advocates and health experts say having frank discussions about sex is a pivotal component.  It's especially relevant for adolescents and young adults who are-or may soon become-sexually active to receive information about the health risks associated with intercourse. Unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) should be on the agenda as well as the risks of contracting Human Immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-the virus that causes AIDS.

Since the first cases of AIDS were identified in 1981, more than 30 million people have died from the disease and an estimated 1.8 million people globally in 2010, according to Avert, an international HIV and AIDS foundation based in the United Kingdom. Yet the misconception that AIDS has been eradicated still persists.  AIDS can be treated but since there's still no cure for this life-threatening disease, it is as important as ever that today's children know how to protect themselves.

For guidance, Quality Health turned to infectious disease specialist Rana Chakraborty MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and medical director at the Ponce Family and Youth Clinic in Atlanta, Georgia. "Young people need to know how a person gets HIV," says the pediatrician.  "The virus is acquired sexually most often."

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, two-thirds of people with HIV in America acquire infection during sexual intercourse with an infected partner but Chakraborty says using condoms can prevent many infections.

HIV can also be transmitted by sharing a needle with someone who is infected or through pregnancy and delivery if the mother is HIV-infected. (Note: Breastmilk also transmits the virus.)  Previously, blood transfusions were another way HIV was spread but the current blood supply is carefully screened, making the risk quite low.

"After a person becomes HIV-infected, the body attempts to fight the infection by making antibodies," says Chakraborty, explaining that a blood test for HIV detects the presence of antibodies. "If antibodies are present in your blood, you are considered HIV-positive and likely to have HIV infection."

AIDS is an acronym for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. As the advocacy group, explains:  Acquired means you can get infected with it; Immune Deficiency is a weakness in the body's system that fights diseases, and syndrome is a group of health problems that make up a disease.

Being HIV-positive is not the same as having AIDS. Many HIV-positive people don't become sick for several years. But as the disease continues, it slowly wears down the immune system.

Although there are medications-antiretroviral drugs that prevent or delay the onset of AIDS-there is no cure and The New York Times recently reported that many HIV-positive patients admit to being lackadaisical when it comes to taking their medications, putting themselves and others at risk. The other factor complicating the pervasive problem is that many HIV-positive people don't know they are infected. 

According to the Times (July 2012),  "Of the estimated 1.1 million HIV-infected people in the United States, an estimated 800,000 are not fully engaged in their care, finding it inconvenient or unavailable or opt out of it altogether since they say they don't feel sick (though when tested, their immune systems fail miserably)."

What worries Chakraborty most, however, is the alarming rise in HIV among adolescents and young adults. "AIDS is still very much an epidemic. We are seeing an increase in certain groups of young people-particularly 15 to 25 year old males who live in the south," the doctor explains.

Chakraborty encourages parents to discuss methods of protection against STIs- including HIV-as well as unwanted pregnancies. "I recommend the use of barrier protection such as a condom and hormonal contraception."

There is new data on anti-HIV medications that can be taken preventively before engaging in sex-and one day there may be even a cure. In the meantime, Chakraborty and others believe that millions of deaths can be averted through vigilance and education. For more information, read the FDA's online booklet, A Condom Could Save Your Life by visiting:



Interview with Rana Chakraborty MD, MSc, FRCPCH, DPhil (PhD)
Associate Professor of Pediatrics
Director, Ponce Family and Youth Clinic
Division of Infectious Diseases
Emory University School of Medicine

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Science Magazine

HIV/AIDS in America (special section)
published July 13, 2012

An international HIV and AIDS charity foundation

New York Times
For Some Aids Patients, Only a Cure Will Do

(July 2012)