Young People Ask . . .
AIDS—Am I at Risk?
NEWSWEEK magazine said that the announcement ‘stunned the world.’ On November 7, 1991, popular U.S. athlete Earvin “Magic” Johnson informed the press that he had contracted the AIDS virus. In the wake of this startling admission, AIDS information hot lines were jammed with calls. Some hospitals were swamped with requests for AIDS tests. Some people even reduced their promiscuous behavior—temporarily at least.
Perhaps the greatest impact of this announcement was upon young people. Says the director of health services at one university: “Students took the ‘it happened to him, it could happen to me’ message to heart—briefly. . . . For most students, what happened to Magic Johnson doesn’t translate into changes in their behavior. They still think they can ‘get away with it.’”
The Bible prophesied that our times would be characterized by “pestilences,” that is, rapidly spreading infectious diseases. (Luke 21:11) AIDS can certainly be called a pestilence. It took eight years—from 1981 to 1989—for the first 100,000 cases of AIDS to be discovered in the United States. But it took only two years for the second 100,000 cases to be reported!
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, this distressing statistic “emphasizes the rapidly increasing magnitude of the [AIDS] epidemic in the United States.” AIDS is a global epidemic, however, cutting a swath of death and misery through Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Significantly, Dr. Marvin Belzer of Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles calls AIDS “the most frightening problem facing youth in the 1990s.”
The Insidious Infection
Just what is this bizarre disease, and why is it so deadly? Doctors believe that AIDS develops when a microscopic particle—a virus called HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)—invades the bloodstream. Once there, the virus embarks on a seek-and-destroy mission against certain of the body’s white blood cells, the helper T cells. These cells play a major role in helping the body ward off disease. The AIDS virus, however, disables them, devastating the immune system.
Considerable time may pass before the infected one feels sick. Some may be symptom free for nearly a decade. But in time flulike symptoms develop—loss of weight and appetite, fever, and diarrhea. As the immune system continues its catastrophic collapse, the victim becomes vulnerable to a host of infections—pneumonia, meningitis, tuberculosis, or certain cancers—called opportunistic because they make use of the opportunity created by a victim’s lowered resistance.
“I’m in constant pain all the time,” says one 20-year-old victim of AIDS. The disease has opened ulcers in his colon and rectum. Full-blown AIDS means more than discomfort and pain, however; for virtually all its victims, it spells death. Since 1981 the virus has spread to over a million people in the United States alone. Already over 160,000 have died. Experts predict that by the year 1995, the number of fatalities will double. There is presently no known cure for AIDS.
Youths at Risk
Thus far, only a tiny percentage of reported AIDS cases—less than 1 percent in the United States—involve teenagers. Therefore, you may not personally know any youths who have died of the malady. This does not mean youths are not at risk! About one fifth of all AIDS victims in the United States are in their 20’s. Since it takes several years for the symptoms to become apparent, most of these individuals were more than likely infected while in their teens. If current trends continue, thousands more youths will become AIDS patients.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the deadly virus lurks “in the blood, semen, and vaginal fluids of infected people.” HIV is therefore transmitted by “having sex—vaginal, anal, or oral—with an infected person.” The vast majority have contracted the ailment in this manner. AIDS can also be passed on by “using or being stuck with a needle or syringe that has been used by or for an infected person.” Furthermore, “some people have been infected by receiving blood transfusions” tainted with HIV.—Voluntary HIV Counseling and Testing: Facts, Issues, and Answers.
Many young people consequently are at risk. Alarming numbers of youths (some say as many as 60 percent in the United States) have experimented with illegal drugs. Since some of these drugs are injected, the risk of infection via a contaminated needle is high. According to one U.S. survey, 82 percent of high school (secondary school) students have used alcoholic beverages, about 50 percent doing so currently. You don’t catch AIDS from drinking a can of beer, but afterward it might impair your judgment and make it more likely that you will engage in the riskiest behavior of all—promiscuous sex, homosexual or heterosexual.
In 1970 less than 5 percent of 15-year-old girls had experienced sexual intercourse. By 1988 that number had swelled to over 25 percent. By age 20, as surveys also show, 75 percent of females and 86 percent of males in the United States are sexually active. Another frightening statistic: Nearly 1 out of 5 teenagers has experienced sex with more than four partners. Yes, more and more youths are engaging in premarital sex, and they are getting started younger than ever.
The picture is no less grim in other lands. In Latin-American countries, up to three quarters of teenage youths have engaged in premarital relations. In African lands many men have reportedly selected teenage girls as sexual partners in an attempt to protect themselves from the AIDS virus. The result? An explosion of AIDS cases among teenage African girls.
The spread of AIDS has done little to stem this tide of destructive behavior. Consider one Latin-American land. More than 60 percent of the “sexually active unmarried young people have a high risk of getting the AIDS virus.” However, less than 10 percent feel they are personally at risk. They tell themselves: ‘It won’t happen to me.’ But this land has “one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the Americas.”—U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
It Can Happen!
The AIDS epidemic underscores the truthfulness of the Bible’s warnings that “the aftereffect” of sexual immorality “is as bitter as wormwood.” (Proverbs 5:3-5; 7:21-23) Of course, the Bible refers primarily to spiritual and emotional damage. But it should not surprise us that sexual immorality also has a number of damaging physical aftereffects.
It is therefore critical that young people realistically face the danger of contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The smug attitude that AIDS ‘can’t happen to me’ could prove deadly. “When you’re fifteen or sixteen or even seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, or twenty, you want to think you’re invulnerable,” said a young man named David. The facts prove otherwise, however. David contracted the AIDS virus at age 15.
To put it bluntly, then: If you are using illegal drugs or engaging in premarital sex, you are at risk! What, though, about claims that one can engage in “safe sex”? Are there realistic ways to protect oneself from this epidemic? Our next article in this series will discuss these questions.
[Box on page 18]
Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases
AIDS has captured the headlines. However, The Medical Post warns: ‘Canada is in the midst of an adolescent STD [sexually transmitted disease] epidemic.’ Canada is not alone. “Every year 2.5 million U.S. teenagers are infected with an STD,” says the U.S.-based Center for Population Options. “This number represents approximately one out of every six sexually active teens and one-fifth of the national STD cases.”
Syphilis, for example, once thought to be on the road to extinction, has made a comeback in recent years, claiming young victims in nearly record numbers. Gonorrhea and chlamydia (the most prevalent STDs in the United States) have likewise proved to be remarkably resistant to efforts at eradicating them. And adolescents have the highest rates of infection. The New York Times similarly reports “a sharp rise” in the number of teenagers afflicted with genital warts. Thousands of youths also have the herpes virus. According to Science News, “people with genital herpes have an increased chance of infection with [HIV], which causes AIDS.”
Says the Center for Population Options: “While adolescents experience higher rates of STDs than any other age group, they are least likely to obtain care. When left undiagnosed and untreated, STDs exact a high cost in pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and cervical cancer.”
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Anyone shooting illegal drugs or engaging in promiscuous sex runs the serious risk of contracting AIDS