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D.C. suburbs can no longer draw the shades on AIDS crisis

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; B01

The myths are still out there:

"You can get it from a mosquito."

"It's from monkeys."

"It's a gay thing."

"If it's oral, it doesn't count."

Keanna Faircloth has heard them all in Northern Virginia schools, where she tries hard to not run out of the room screaming, crying or pulling her hair out.

Faircloth goes to these schools, busts the myths and tries to put some useful information about HIV/AIDS into the rock-hard heads of about 10,000 kids every year.

And this can be a daunting task, given that not all schools in Northern Virginia welcome the message of prevention that Faircloth's organization, Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry, is delivering.

"Of course, we start with abstinence. Of course. But that's also not realistic. Thirteen? Sex at 13 is nothing in these schools," she said.

Even in the suburbs? Where the lawns are all nice and the schools are great? AIDS?

And how.

The Washington AIDS Partnership is releasing a study Tuesday on HIV/AIDS in seven suburbs surrounding Washington. It's a sister study to the blockbuster released in 2005 that predicted an HIV/AIDS crisis in Washington. It materialized in 2008 when the District reported an epidemic-level rate of infection -- 3 percent of the population, among the highest in the nation and worse than in some Third World countries.

The report will tell us that almost half of the folks infected with the virus in our region live in the 'burbs. And the problem is that care, prevention and treatment programs are scattered throughout the area and often are inconsistent.

Those are big situations that involve health-care costs, treatment centers, federal funding programs and housing. Coordination and cost-sharing can mend some of those issues.

But the easiest, cheapest and best long-term solution is simply information.

The report found that HIV-prevention education in schools is "inconsistent and timid."

"Ha! I can't bring a condom into a school," Faircloth said. "I can't even talk about condoms."

Yes, we have no bananas.

The sex-ed teachers' classic demonstration of unrolling a condom on a banana is forbidden in many schools that are little more than a Metro ride from the nation's HIV/AIDS epicenter.

The very sight of that banana probably did more to promote abstinence in my own high school than any earnest talk could. But for those who were undeterred by the fruit, at least they knew how to do it safely.

The fact is, a lot of kids are having sex, and the puzzling trend is that they are doing it recklessly.

The number of young people in Northern Virginia 13 to 19 years old with HIV went up 50 percent from 2006 to 2008, said Carol Jameson, chief executive officer of the Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry.

She thinks that information could have prevented much of that increase and put the argument for prevention education into simple arithmetic: "I can provide comprehensive teen prevention for $35 a person. If that teen gets AIDS, the lifetime medical costs will be about $800,000."

And teens need to hear every penny of that $35 worth of wisdom.

Outreach workers who go to these schools told me that AIDS is now seen as a chronic disease, rather than a death sentence. It's terrific that medicine has found ways to help people with the virus live full, productive lives. But the unnerving result is that the fading of the lesion-pocked AIDS patient at death's door as the poster child for the virus is fertile ground for the epidemic's rebirth.

"The face of HIV and AIDS has changed. You see the faces of some of these people who are HIV-positive in the ads today and you want their number. They look good," said Bernard Jackson, who works with youth outreach as part of the AIDS ministry's programs.

"And so, maybe kids are thinking, 'It isn't so bad if you get it. You can live with it," Jackson said. "And I tell them, maybe people don't die of AIDS, but they die of complications from AIDS."

Jackson is among the invited speakers who share their stories in Virginia schools. There's a wife whose cheating husband infected her, a former drug user, a gay man and others.

They are often bombarded with questions from kids and even teachers who have bizarre ideas and theories about the virus. So much random information is swirling in the vacuum, it sometimes feels like the 1980s.

And with a quieting of frank and realistic talk about HIV/AIDS, its slow comeback can begin. In our cities and in our quiet, pretty suburbs.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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