INTERVIEWS: How informed do you feel about HIV and AIDS?

By Sasha Jones, 18, Crossroads School (Santa Monica)
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Sasha says she hopes teens take their health seriously and protect themselves.

Growing up, I had always heard about HIV/AIDS on the news, and I knew the basics. I knew that it was a sexually transmitted disease, that it was devastating Africa, that it had no cure. But I had hardly ever heard HIV talked about in school. Yes, we had sex education in fourth grade, and again in ninth grade, but somehow one of the most significant aspects had been barely covered—how to protect ourselves, as teenagers, from contracting HIV.

Nearly two years ago, one of my former teachers who I had stayed friends with approached me, asking if I wanted to learn more about HIV and speak about it to other high schoolers. The UCLA AIDS Ambassadors, student activists involved in HIV/AIDS education, wanted to train high school students to spread awareness to their peers. Eager to learn more, I volunteered. I had been looking for a meaningful community service project (I had to complete two 20-hour projects and 10 additional hours by the end of high school) and this sounded promising. 

In two intense days of training at UCLA, about 40 of my classmates and I absorbed an immense amount of information. We had seminars, activities, poster-designing workshops—all led by UCLA ambassadors. We went over everything from statistics to how to do a condom demonstration. What impacted me the most, however, were the personal interactions. Shari Lewis, one of the UCLA ambassadors who is also HIV positive, became like an older sister to us all during that weekend. Other than a relative I barely remembered and who I had only recently been told had died of AIDS, I had never met anyone with the virus before. Shari gave me a personal perspective of the virus, something I could carry with me whenever I presented in the future.

Illustration by Sarah Evans, 17, Temple City HS

Another UCLA ambassador told us about the anguish he felt when his parents condemned him for having contracted HIV. We could have learned the facts from reading a textbook, but these people made it real. The HIV/AIDS crisis is often characterized as something happening “over there,” in Africa or in Asia. But after I met these two warm, welcoming people, who stood right in front of me and were living with the virus, I could no longer leave it in the back of my mind. Their stories also made me realize how easy it is to be at risk without the right information. 

After the training we were officially Crossroads Teen AIDS Ambassadors and it was time to start presenting. We were ready to speak, in groups of five to eight, at high schools around Los Angeles about HIV/AIDS and how teenagers can protect themselves against it. The first time I stood up in front of a class at an environmental charter school in Hawthorne, I was practically shaking. I’ve never been much of a public speaker; I get nervous and talk too quickly. It only made it harder that I was talking to kids older than I was about HIV and sex. I worried that they would laugh at me or not take me seriously. I was also afraid that I wouldn’t be interesting enough. The class was small, only about 10 kids, but I was still shaking a little bit when I stood up to do my part to talk about the spread of the virus from the 1980s to today. As the presentation went on, I became a little more comfortable.

We start with the basics

Our presentations are about 45 minutes, and we usually begin with an explanation of HIV/AIDS: what the acronyms stand for, the difference between the two (HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus and AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is the disease) and the five fluids that transmit the virus. Those fluids, for the record, are semen, pre-cum, vaginal fluid, blood and, one I hadn’t known about, breast milk.

We begin with the nuts and bolts to make sure kids have a good idea of how the virus operates, which will help them understand how to protect themselves. We then present some statistics; for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 25 percent of the roughly 1 million Americans living with HIV don’t know they’re infected. This statistic terrifies me because the virus spreads uncontrollably when people aren’t aware of it.

We transition from the global outlook to explaining the hard science of HIV. We project charts onto a screen that display the spread of HIV through the United States starting in 1981, and discuss the history of the virus. These slides consist of maps of the U.S. with yellow dots. Each dot represents 30 AIDS cases. The first map, which represents 1981, has barely any dots; by the last one, which shows the most current statistics, there are tons of dots all over the country. The rapidity with which the dots multiply over a short span of time shocked me the first time I saw it, and I often hear a couple of astonished murmurs from the audience.

Facts about HIV/AIDS

1. You cannot get HIV from …
working with or being around someone who has HIV sweat, spit, tears, clothes, toilet seats, or through everyday things like sharing a meal, insect bites or stings, donating blood, a closed-mouth kiss (but there is a very small chance of getting it from an open-mouth or “French” kiss with an infected person because of possible blood contact)

2. You can get HIV from …
sexual intercourse and oral sex birth, if your mother is infected sharing needles with someone who is infected a blood transfusion (risk is extremely low)

3. HIV can infect anyone, male, female, young, old, gay or straight. Don’t think you’re not at risk just because you’re a teen. More than half of all new HIV infections in the United States occur among people under the age of 25. Almost 11.8 million youth around the world are living with HIV or AIDS. Throughout the world, almost 6,000 youth ages 15 to 24 become infected with HIV each day.

4. You can live 10 or more years with HIV without showing a single symptom.

5. Birth control methods like the pill or the patch give you no protection from HIV. Condoms give you protection, but only if they are used correctly.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) causes • AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). This illness weakens the immune system, making it less able to fight certain infections and diseases.

Next, we explain some statistics about teenagers and HIV. Every hour, two American teenagers are infected with HIV and teen condom use declines over the years from ninth to 12th grade. The first stat really scares a lot of kids, including myself. But instead of simply throwing out scary facts, we focus on how teens can protect themselves and the people they love. We go over the ways in which you can contract HIV— through any activity where any of the five fluids interact. From here, we list risky activities after which you should get an HIV test: unprotected sex, use of an unclean needle for piercing, tattoos or drug use.

We put nearly as much emphasis on the ways in which you cannot get HIV. When the virus first appeared in the 1980s there was lots of stigma attached. People were afraid to stand near those with HIV/AIDS, afraid to share silverware or even breathe the same air. So we always stress that HIV can only be transmitted through the five fluids, where it has a high enough concentration. This means it can’t infect you through tears, saliva or sweat. In fact, to get HIV from saliva, you’d have to swallow a whole gallon! The audience usually gags at the idea of drinking so much saliva. 

The next section of the presentation is the fun part. We do the condom demonstration and give a lot of information about how to protect yourself sexually. This is often the most engaging part because it’s directly applicable to teenage life. Even if students aren’t sexually active, it’s likely that they know someone who is, or that they want the information anyways, just in case. We do the classic “putting a condom on a banana” demo, with plenty of safety tips, which is guaranteed to produce giggles. For example, never double up condoms—it doesn’t mean twice the protection; instead it causes friction that can cause the condom to break. We also break down the misconception that a boy can be too big for a condom. We put both of our hands inside the condom, and stretch around a little bit. Usually, we add something along the lines of, “If he’s too big for this, he’s probably too big for you!” When I first did this part of the presentation, I was afraid to be so blunt in front of kids older than me, but I actually found myself feeling emboldened when some of the kids laughed.

We end the presentation with information about where teenagers can go to get tested for HIV. Before we go to a school, we try to find information about free and anonymous testing sites in the area. (Call (800) 758-0880 for a list of testing sites in your area.) We encourage everyone to get tested if they think they’ve been at risk and to tell their friends.

There is always time for questions from the group. We usually hand out paper and have them submit questions anonymously so that no one will be afraid to ask. I always hope that people will be uninhibited with their questions. When it comes to protecting your life, there are no stupid questions. We’ve heard it all. Someone once asked if they could use butter as a lubricant. It might seem silly, but it’s important to know not to use butter, or any oil-based lubricant. The oil creates friction, which could break the condom, so always use a water-based lubricant. No questions should be considered irrelevant when so much is at stake.

Teens hear my message because I’m one of them

Every time I’ve gone to a school, I’ve grown more confident and now I can do a condom demo, no problem, in front of a class of high school seniors. Of course, it helps that I’m a senior now. But even last year when we went to Venice High School, talking about HIV with the students felt completely natural, as it should be. While I’ve had a couple bad experiences (there was one really rowdy class, where a boy kept directing rude jokes at me), for the most part, each presentation has been successful.

I’ve found that the most effective method of spreading knowledge about HIV/AIDS is through teenage interaction because kids are more likely to listen to each other than to an adult who might not relate as well. The transmission of HIV can be a very sensitive subject, so it’s easier to discuss it with your peers. While we all may come from different backgrounds, we have our generation in common; I know I feel more comfortable talking about it with someone my own age. As AIDS ambassadors, our goal is to spread information about how to protect oneself from this devastating virus, beginning with our own age group. As the ambassadors always say, knowledge is power—I believe that spreading this information will save lives.

Once, at the end of a presentation, the teacher of the class asked each of the students to talk about what they had learned and how the talk had affected them. One boy, a senior, told us that what we had said made him think twice. He said that as soon as he got out of school he was going to Planned Parenthood to get tested, and he was going to bring a friend with him. This was the most direct impact I had seen us make. I was so moved by his feeling of empowerment, by the excitement he showed about being able to pass this knowledge on to his friend. Even if we hadn’t reached anyone else that day, this would have been enough.

Want to know more?

Invite one of these peer-to-peer HIV/AIDS education organizations to your school.

• Crossroads Teen AIDS Ambassadors: (310) 829-7391 ext. 320
Peer Education Program of Los Angeles (PEP/LA): (323) 651-9888
REACH LA: (213) 622-1650 ext. 102

Other stories by this writer:

Hiking in L.A. Even in the city, Sasha, 18, and her friends enjoyed the outdoors. WITH Hiking photo gallery. (October 2007)