AIDS—A Crisis for Teenagers
THE AIDS epidemic knows no age or generation gap. Worldwide reports provide tragic proof that “AIDS Is Spreading in Teen-Agers, a New Trend Alarming to Experts,” as proclaimed in the title of a New York Times article on AIDS. The extent of AIDS infection among teenagers “is going to be the next crisis,” said Dr. Gary R. Strokash, director of adolescent medicine of a noted Chicago medical center. “It’s dreadful and it’s going to be devastating,” he said. “There is no doubt,” lamented Dr. Charles Wibbelsman, chief of the teen clinic at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco, “the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s, if there is no vaccine, will be among . . . teenagers.” Speaking of AIDS-infected teenagers, the observation of a noted New York City AIDS educator was: “We think it’s a crisis emergency situation.”
The Toronto Star of Canada, headlined the forbidding outlook as AIDS spreads among the teens. “At the moment, it’s far worse than anybody realizes,” said one doctor. “I think it’s a terrible problem we don’t have much of a handle on. We’re going to find out how bad it is eventually.” The doctor’s simple phrase becomes the unanimous opinion of health officials and government leaders throughout the world as the AIDS scourge escalates.
Until recently, AIDS experts did not focus on adolescents as being at high risk of infection by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which causes AIDS. “We’re talking about something that only a year ago was just a theoretical possibility,” said one New York City doctor. However, “doctors who just a year ago did not have one infected teen-age patient now have a dozen or more,” reported The New York Times.
Researchers feel that while available information on teens infected with the AIDS virus is alarming, it is only a faint outline of the tip of the iceberg, since symptoms often do not appear until an average of from seven to ten years after infection. So those infected with HIV in their early teens may not develop full-blown AIDS symptoms until their late teens or early 20’s.
For example, in a recent study of all births in the state since 1987, the New York State Health Department found that 1 in 1,000 babies born to 15-year-olds had antibodies to the AIDS virus, indicating that the mother of the baby was infected. Alarmingly, the same study revealed that 1 in 100 babies born to 19-year-olds had antibodies to the AIDS virus. A further study by CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) revealed that 20 percent of American males and 25 percent of American females diagnosed as having AIDS are in their 20’s. The CDC study reports that in most of the cases, the disease was contracted in adolescence.
How can this be, though, when babies born with the AIDS virus seldom, if ever, live to become teenagers? The reasons are devastating!
Researchers and doctors are quick to testify that today’s teenagers are “extremely sexually active, as the rates of sexually transmitted diseases among them indicate,” reported The New York Times. The Center for Population Options reports that each year 1 in 6 teenagers contracts a sexually transmitted disease and that 1 of every 6 sexually active high-school girls has had at least four different partners.
“Despite exhortations to ‘just say no,’ the average American teenager loses virginity at age 16,” reported U.S.News & World Report. “Since few teens are tested, most of those who are infected do not know they are carrying the HIV virus,” the magazine said. With or without the sexual promiscuity associated with the use of crack cocaine, whether they are runaways or not, “American teenagers are ripe targets for AIDS,” wrote one expert on AIDS. “They’re already experiencing 2.5 million cases of sexually transmitted disease every year.” Dr. Gary Noble of CDC made this observation: “We know their sexual behavior results in significant risk for infection.”
Adding to the already rapidly growing number of conduits for transmission of the AIDS virus are the streetwise adolescents, some not yet in their teens, many runaways from child-abusing parents. Among them there has been a dramatic rise in the number who have turned to crack cocaine use. Many have turned to prostitution to support their habit or for a place to sleep. In South America, for example, “girls as young as nine and 10 often work as prostitutes, sometimes for a plate of food,” said a Brazilian children’s counselor. “Many know little about AIDS or sex. I’ve had girls who were pregnant and thought they ‘caught it,’ like a cold,” she said.
Dr. Philip Pizzo, an AIDS expert and chief of pediatrics at the National Cancer Institute, said that the HIV-infection rate in teenage runaways bodes ill for the AIDS epidemic. “There are more than a million runaways who are making their living through sex. Without doubt, a number of them will be reintegrated into society.”
Is it any wonder that the AIDS epidemic is escalating by leaps and bounds among teenagers worldwide? Is it on an unstoppable course? It will be as long as indifference and complacency continue to be manifest by those infected with the AIDS virus and those who cannot say no to premarital sex. Consider, for example, this report from The Sunday Star of Johannesburg, South Africa. In a recent survey conducted among 1,142 clinic patients having sexually transmitted diseases, 70 percent admitted to having from 3 to 80 sex partners a month. Some were still active and infecting others.
Unfortunately, many teenagers are not too concerned about contracting AIDS. To them every day is such a fight for survival—so many ways to die on the street—that they cannot focus on something that may kill them years from now. In the meantime a cure will surely be found, they feel, to save them. “Adolescents are a prime example of a group that does not look 10 years ahead,” said one AIDS expert.
There is also a sinister misconception among many that their sexual partners are not lying when they say that they are free of the AIDS virus. Very often this is not the case. Even in advanced stages of the disease, many victims willfully infect others out of anger or revenge.
Not to be overlooked are those who are infected with the virus through contaminated needles used to mainline drugs—a conduit that has already taken its toll. And, finally, there is the ever-present threat of contracting AIDS through blood transfusions. Many innocent victims have already died from the disease, and others will yet die from HIV-contaminated blood. Many doctors and nurses fear pricking themselves with needles contaminated with the AIDS virus, which can unalterably change their lives. Is it any wonder that AIDS is said to be the crisis of the ’90’s and beyond?