How much do you know about AIDS? Choices talked to teenagers who are trained to answer questions about this deadly disease. They tell you what you need to know.
It was late on a Thursday afternoon, and 17-year-old Nicole Bouchard of Prairie Village, Kansas, sat patiently by the phone. When it rang, she grabbed the receiver and pressed it to her ear. The person on the other end was a stranger, a 19-year-old man from California. His voice quaked with emotion.
Caller: Hi. I think I've done something risky, and I'm worried.
Nicole: What did you do?
Caller: I've had sex with more than one person, and I never used protection. Can I get AIDS?
Nicole: You're definitely at risk for getting AIDS. You should get tested to see if you have HIV
Nicole referred the man to his local health department so he could be tested. He resisted her suggestion to get the test, she remembers. "He was looking for me to tell him that he wasn't at risk, but I couldn't do that." Nicole knew she couldn't force the man to accept her advice. "He is responsible for his actions and his own health," she says. But, she is hopeful that her words persuaded him.
Nicole is one of 450 teen volunteers who spend several afternoons a month answering phones at the Teen TAP (Teaching AIDS Prevention) hot line in Kansas City, Missouri. The Teen TAP volunteers are trained to answer questions about the disease AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. The calls come in from places all over the country. "Kids call and there's a lot they don't know," Nicole says. "Many of them don't know what AIDS is."
AIDS is a fatal disease that has no cure. It is a disorder of the immune system — the body's defense against disease. AIDS is caused by HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, which destroys the immune system and makes a person susceptible to many dangerous illnesses.
Since the early 1980s, AIDS has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans. Although the number of deaths from AIDS has decreased in recent years, the number of people who are infected with HIV is still high. As many as 900,000 Americans are now living with HIV, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) predicts that 40,000 more Americans will become infected with the virus this year.
The number of AIDS cases among teens and young adults is growing, say experts. AIDS is currently the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 25 and 44. In recent years, approximately half of all new infections were among people under 25. According to the CDC, many young adults with AIDS were infected as teenagers, through sexual activity.
Nicole and the other young AIDS educators who spoke with Choices hope to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus among teenagers. Like Nicole, many of them answer phone calls at teen AIDS hot lines. Others visit schools and teen halfway houses to give talks and answer questions about the disease.
Here, they tell you what you need to know about HIV and AIDS.
Volunteers who talked to Choices:
- Jill Radtke, 17, and Nick Reddell, 18. They work with Nicole at the Teen TAP hot line.
- Clarissa Mendez, 15, Dilia Chicas, 17, and Karla Martinez, 17, answer phones at a Houston, Texas, AIDS hot line for teens called The CHATT (Comprehensive Health and AIDS Talk for Teens) Line.
- Joey Bellerdine, 21, and Christina Hall, 21, work as counselors for Metro TeenAIDS, an organization that does outreach programs in Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
• What does it mean when someone is HIV-positive?
Jill: It means that their bodies have been infected with HIV. The virus has gotten into their bloodstreams. HIV will probably develop into AIDS,
• Does someone infected with HIV always get AIDS?
Nicole: Researchers don't know. It appears that the majority of people who are HIV-positive develop AIDS eventually, often within 10 years.
• How does someone get infected with HIV?
Joey: HIV is transmitted through four fluids: blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. So blood-on-blood contact, and sexual contact where semen or vaginal fluids are exchanged, can transmit HIV. A mother can also pass the virus to her baby during her pregnancy, when she gives birth, or through breast-feeding.
Clarissa: AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease so you can get it through sexual intercourse. You can also get it by sharing needles through drug use.
• What are the symptoms of AIDS?
Joey: As HIV develops into AIDS, a person could experience nausea, night sweats, insomnia, fatigue, and fevers. When that person gets AIDS, the immune system is so beaten up that his or her body becomes susceptible to infections from which healthy people are usually immune. Examples of these include shingles, which is an adult version of chicken pox; thrush, which is a yeast infection of the esophagus and mouth; pneumonia; and Karposi sarcoma, a cancer in which lesions and open sores appear on the skin.
• Can a person get HIV from kissing?
Joey: No. There is no evidence that people can get HIV from saliva.
• There's a guy in my school who's HIV-positive. Can I catch it from him?
Dilia: No. You can't get it except through sexual contact, drug use, or blood-on-blood contact. You can touch this person, hug him, kiss him. You should treat him the way you would treat anyone else.
• How can you tell if someone else has AIDS?
Jill: You can't always tell by someone's appearance if they have AIDS. Someone who is HIV-positive can look fine, healthy. The virus in those people hasn't developed into AIDS yet. They can look just like anyone else while they carry the AIDS virus and infect other people. They may not even know that they have the virus.
• What does it feel like to have HIV?
Joey: When someone becomes HIV positive, they may not feel sick or tired right away. Some HIV-infected people get flu-like symptoms that will go away after a few days.
• If you have unprotected sex just once, what are your chances of getting AIDS?
Karla: If you have unprotected sex even once, you can get HIV.
• How long can a person with HIV or AIDS live?
Christina: People infected with HIV can live for 10 years or longer with the virus. There are many medications that can prolong a person's life. But it can be tough. Many of the drugs have nasty side effects, like nausea, insomnia, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, and fatigue.
• How can people with HIV and AIDS take care of themselves?
Clarissa: Since AIDS attacks the immune system, people need to strengthen their bodies. They should eat a healthy diet and exercise. There are also medications that they can take.
• What should you do to protect yourself from AIDS?
Dilia: The best way to protect yourself is to practice abstinence and to not have sex. If you're going to have sex, you should use a latex condom to protect yourself and your partner from sexually transmitted diseases.
• When should you get tested for AIDS?
Joey: If you've participated in risky behavior — like being sexually active, especially without using condoms, or doing drugs with needles — you should get tested right away.
• Where do you go to get tested?
Jill: We have a whole book of clinics across the country. We ask people where they live, and if they are comfortable telling us, we give them a list of clinics in their area where they can get tested for HIV for free.
Nicole: At the clinic, they draw blood from you and test it. It takes one to two weeks to get the results.
• How can you be sure that the clinic doing the testing won't reveal your identity?
Dilia: Most of the time, you don't have to give your name. The clinic gives you a number. When the results are in, you tell them the number and you get the results.
Inside an AIDS Hot Line.
Nicole Bouchard remembers the night she got a phone call from a 16-year-old girl with AIDS. The girl was crying and very depressed. As she listened, Nicole couldn't help but wonder how she would cope if she had AIDS herself.
Once or twice a month, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Nicole, 17, answers calls for Teen TAP, a national hot line manned by teens in the Kansas City, Missouri, area. After undergoing 42 hours of training — which included an AIDS-education course, role-playing, and watching experienced phone counselors work the phones — she's ready to answer any question about AIDS. Some evenings Nicole gets 10 calls, other evenings she gets 50.
Answering calls for an AIDS hot line is sobering work. "It's kind of a wakeup call for me," says Nicole. "It definitely affects how I behave and what I tell my friends." Nicole and the other teens interviewed by Choices feel that they are making a difference, perhaps saving lives. "I'm giving out information that can prevent people from getting sick or catching a disease, and that means a lot to me," says Karla Martinez, 17, who answers phones for The CHATT hot line in Houston, Texas. Enlisting teens to help spread the word about HIV and AIDS is essential to reaching young people, says Dr. Larry D'Angelo of the Burgess Clinic in Washington, D.C. "Adolescents need to be involved in the educational process because teens listen to other teens," he says. Still, it can be difficult to convince callers about the seriousness of AIDS. Jill Radtke, 17, of Teen TAP, says some callers reject her advice, saying they're going to engage in risky behavior anyway. "It can be frustrating," Jill says. "But you just have to do every thing you can to inform them and persuade them to be safe."
How to Get Involved
If you need information about AIDS, or want to get involved in the fight against the disease by working for a hot line or an outreach program, contact your local health department to get a list of AIDS service organizations in your area. You can also call the National AIDS Hot Line at (800) 342-AIDS.