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Children can be affected by HIV and AIDS at any age. Teenagers may put themselves at risk – or have friends they are concerned about. And younger children may have heard about it on television or from their friends, and wonder what it means to them.
What you should tell them depends on their age and activities, experience and interest. Sexually active 16-year olds and curious eight-year olds both need information, but they won’t want to know the same things. Their outlook will differ too; while younger children may be afraid of AIDS, teens and older children often see themselves as invulnerable.
It also depends on how much they already know. Do they have health or family life classes at school? Human sexuality education should be part of the curriculum from kindergarten to the end of high school. They should be learning about HIV and AIDS prevention, but you can’t assume they are. Ask them what is being taught – or ask the school what resources are being used.
What should children know at various ages? Here are some suggestions:
Young Children (5 – 8 years)
Children this age have likely heard about AIDS and may have questions or fears about it. Reassure them. Let them know they shouldn’t worry about getting AIDS. Explain that AIDS is a sickness caused by a kind of germ or virus carried in some people’s blood. But it’s not like a cold. It’s not easy to catch. Try to find out what they already know, and explain that people with HIV/AIDS need compassion and friendship. At this – or any – age, dispel any myths they may have picked up. (No, it’s not spread by mosquito bites or toilet seats, drinking fountains or swimming pools. And you can’t get sick just by being around somebody with AIDS.)
Pre-teens (9 – 12 years)
With the changes of puberty, pre-teens start becoming more concerned about their bodies and their looks. Parents need to talk to them about sexuality, AIDS and drugs. Give them accurate information, using the correct words for different parts of the body.
Tell them what is meant by sexual intercourse, how HIV is spread, how to avoid risky behaviours and why taking drugs is dangerous. Pre-teens are old enough to understand what AIDS stands for: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. And what it means: that the cells that fight infections are not working. It is a serious, incurable disease – but it can be prevented.
Teenagers (13 – 19 years)
This age group needs far more information, and in far more detail. Teenagers need to know that the best way to prevent HIV and AIDS is to avoid sexual intercourse and injection drug use. But they need to know about condoms and birth control too, and how drugs and alcohol can affect their judgment. Tell them about the high risk of sharing needles for injecting drugs, including steroids, or for ear and body piercing or tattoos. Make sure they understand that AIDS is not just a disease that affects gay men. It can affect anyone who engages in risky behaviours.
For conversation openers, try these:
Ask your children what they’ve learned about AIDS at school, or if they ever think about it.
Tell them about an article you’ve read or news report you heard.
Leave a book or magazine article on HIV or AIDS around the house for them to read.
Listen carefully to what they say – and don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. You can find out more about HIV/AIDS at your local library or health unit.
For other suggestions, check the 1995 Health Canada booklet, "We Need to Know about AIDS: A Guide for Parents Talking with their Children About AIDS," or AIDS–Proofing Your Kids: A Step-by-Step Guide by Loren Acker, Bram Goldwater and William Dyson (Silvio Mattacchione & Co., 1992), for parents of teens. The "Learning About AIDS" workbook has quizzes and stories to help pre-teens gain a better understanding of AIDS. All are available through the National AIDS Clearinghouse, Canadian Public Health Association, 400-1565 Carling Avenue, Ottawa, Ontario K1Z 8R1.
-- Anonymous, April 19, 2002
Great introduction to HIV/AIDS
-- Anonymous, April 20, 2002
General Facts On AIDS
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV is a retrovirus that enters the body through the bloodstream as a result of unprotected sexual intercourse or sharing unsterilized needles. It acts on the body by attacking and weakening the immune system: it seeks out, enters and destroys helper T-cells (the cells in your immune system that help your immune system function).
After the initial exposure to HIV, some individuals may develop a flu-like illness that lasts about three to 14 days, sometimes longer – this is acute or primary HIV infection. Some patients may experience the flu-like symptoms after a lag of three to six weeks following exposure, while others may be completely without symptoms. Many people living with HIV are healthy for months – even years. However, they can infect others during this period.
Circumstances that can influence the pace and perhaps the direction of HIV’s course include: infectious agents, such as Hepatitis B, syphilis and herpes; poor nutrition; the effects of stress; and continued use of intravenous drugs.
As the infection progresses, there may be severe, long-lasting symptoms, such as:
Swollen lymph glands in the neck, underarm or groin area Recurrent fever, including "night sweats" (pajamas and/or sheets are drenched with perspiration – a sweaty neck or scalp is not a night sweat) Rapid weight loss for no apparent reason Constant tiredness Diarrhea and decreased appetite White spots or unusual mouth sores Recurring vaginal yeast infections Changes in the menstrual cycle Anyone who has any of these symptoms for more than a week should see a doctor.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Over time, HIV damages the body’s immune system, allowing people to get infections and cancers which would not usually be a threat to healthy people. These illnesses are called "opportunistic injections."
AIDS is usually diagnosed in HIV-positive people who have developed one or more of the following illnesses:
Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS): A cancer of the capillaries which occurs in persons with AIDS. Lesions may first appear on the feet or legs and on the soft palate of the mouth. They may also remain hidden in the internal organs.
Wasting Syndrome: Severe weight loss involving depletion of muscle mass in people with AIDS which occurs even in the absence of other infections.
Cytomegalovirus (CMV): An opportunistic infection that can cause fever, mild sore throat, fatigue, aches and swollen glands. Severe CMV infections can cause hepatitis, pneumonia, retinitis and colitis; leading in some cases to blindness and chronic diarrhea.
Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP): A type of pneumonia caused by a fungus which grows rapidly in the lungs of people with AIDS.
Mycobacterium avium intracellulare (MAI): An opportunistic infection that causes fevers, diarrhea and weight loss.
Lymphoma: A cancer of the cells that are responsible for normal immune function.
Cervical Cancer: Cancer of the cervix which may cause bleeding from the vagina after intercourse, between periods or after menopause. Women who have HIV may be five times more likely to develop this disease than other women.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID): Inflammation of the upper reproductive tract (uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries) usually caused by infection such as a sexually transmitted disease.
Typical Routes of Transmission
The routes of HIV transmission are well established:
Unprotected intercourse with a person who is infected (penile- vaginal; penile-anal; sharing sex toys);
Sharing needles or syringes with an infected person; and
Mother-to-child transmission in the uterus, during childbirth or through breastfeeding.
HIV may also be spread through blood or blood products. This is very unlikely now because all donors are carefully screened and all donors’ blood and blood products are tested before being used.
In each of these routes, certain conditions must exist in order for HIV transmission to occur. These factors, with specific reference to sexual transmission, are:
There must be a source of infection. In other words, HIV must be present in certain bodily fluids, such as blood, semen or vaginal fluids;
There must be an entry site into the bloodstream, usually through a break in the skin or absorption through mucosal linings. (This is why unprotected anal and vaginal sex are particularly problematic, because of frequent mucosal tears); and
There must be a sufficient level of the virus delivered to establish infection. Blood, semen and vaginal fluids are of concern here because of their high quantity or concentration of the virus.
You cannot get HIV by:
Sitting next to someone Touching, shaking hands, hugging, dry kissing Sharing food, plates, utensils Using restrooms, water fountains or telephones Donating blood Being bitten by a mosquito. Theoretical Risk
In determining the levels of risk for the transmission of HIV, one must consider the principles of transmission and the presence and concentration of HIV in different body fluids. These are considered theoretical because the amounts, conditions and media of exchange are such that the efficiency of HIV transmission appears to be greatly diminished. Some theoretical risks are greater than others. For instance, the quantity of HIV that is carried in saliva makes this body fluid an unlikely source of infection.
(Source: Safer Sex Guidelines: Healthy Sexuality and HIV, Canadian AIDS Society, 1994.)
Methods of Prevention
The main methods of prevention include:
Using a latex condom during penis/anus or penis/vagina sex (with plenty of water-based lubricant during anal and vaginal sex) and during mouth/penis sex or when sharing sex toys.
Using a dental dam or condom cut open for vagina/vagina or mouth/vagina sex.
If sharing needles, cleaning them properly with bleach. (The best protection when using needles is to use your own, clean needle.)
The HIV antibody test was not universally welcomed when it first became available. At that time, it was widely believed that testing for people who had a significant risk of being infected but were already practicing risk reduction was not productive for several reasons:
People thought to have HIV/AIDS have been discriminated against or harassed;
Testing can be very stressful. Stress alone can cause illness, and in the presence of HIV it might precipitate illness; and
Because there is no cure, not much could be done medically for those who tested positive.
There are, however, compelling reasons to get tested, for example:
Testing and early diagnosis allow early treatment which can help delay or prevent the onset of life-threatening illnesses;
Many places now offer pre and post-test counseling which provides vital support in prevention/education; and
Medical testing can potentially lessen chances of transmission to the fetus, via informed choice by the mother regarding use of AZT before, during and after childbirth.
(Copies of a brochure entitled Basic Facts About AIDS are available from National AIDS Clearinghouse, Canadian Public Health Association, 400-1565 Carling Avenue, Ottawa, Ontario K1Z 8R1 Tel: 613-725-3434 Fax: 613-725-1205, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
-- Anonymous, April 19, 2002