You have probably heard of the deadly disease called AIDS. Doctors first noticed cases of the sickness in the United States in 1981. Its name is short for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. In the U.S., some 42,000 people have had the disease.
Some of the AIDS patients are children. You may have seen some stories about children with AIDS on the TV news recently. Kids with AIDS have had a hard time finding a school that will let them go to class. After you saw the sick children on TV, you may have wondered, "If they can get AIDS, could I get it, too?"
It is very sad that some kids have AIDS. It is also very unusual for children to get the disease. Some of the children you have heard about in the news got AIDS from blood products they were given as part of a treatment for another disease.
However, most children are not exposed to blood products. And since 1985, kids who do have to receive blood products or transfusions are protected. Sensitive tests have been developed to make sure that the blood people donate for use in medical treatments is safe. If you have to receive blood as part of a medical treatment, you can feel sure that it is not infected with AIDS.
Some young AIDS patients are babies who caught the disease from their mothers before they were born. The mothers had AIDS, and passed it along to their unborn children. Some of the mothers had been drug addicts, and caught AIDS from sharing needles used to inject drugs.
Reading or hearing about children with AIDS is scary and sad. When people hear about the disease, it's easy to get upset and frightened and stop thinking straight. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and other experts believe that a good way to deal with the AIDS crisis is to educate everyone about the disease -- including children.
With that in mind, let's answer a few questions you may have about AIDS. It might be a good idea to read this column with your mom and dad. That way, if you don't understand what you read, they can explain it to you right away. Ask your parents to read the article on Page 10 of this section for more information.
1. What does AIDS do to the body?
AIDS is caused by a germ called a virus. Once the virus has infected someone's body, it kills useful cells called T-cells that usually fight off sickness. The virus can also attack and damage cells in the brain. The immune system -- the part of the body that fights off disease -- gets weak when someone gets AIDS. The system can no longer battle sicknesses like pneumonia, cancer and other serious conditions. AIDS patients catch these diseases, and eventually die. Experimental treatments are being developed to fight AIDS. But so far doctors have not found any medicines that cure the illness.
2. Can I get AIDS from just touching someone who has it?
You cannot get AIDS from casual contact with someone. "Casual contact" means shaking hands, hugging, passing someone a pencil in class -- the ordinary touching that we do every day. Outside of the body, the AIDS virus is very fragile and quickly dies. It doesn't live on surfaces like toilet seats, glasses or towels. It can only be passed directly from one person's body fluids -- like blood -- into another person's body fluids.
Because the AIDS virus is found in an infected person's blood, it's important to avoid touching blood. If you have been to the dentist lately, you probably noticed that he or she wore special gloves made of thin, tough rubber. Doctors and technicians have started wearing gloves, too. The gloves protect these specialists from coming into contact with blood.
3. What if someone with AIDS comes to my school?
Many of the news stories about children with AIDS focus on the trouble they have getting schools to let them attend class. It's not difficult to understand why people are frightened of letting their kids attend school with chilldren who may have AIDS. The disease is fatal and has no known cure.
However, children with AIDS should be able to attend school if they are well enough to do so. Doctors say that other children can play with them normally, just as they would with healthy children. If something happens that would bring kids in contact with the AIDS patient's blood -- if he or she fell down and got a bloody nose or a cut, for example -- they should call a teacher or the school nurse to help. They should avoid touching the AIDS patient's blood.
AIDS is a serious, scary disease. If you are worried about it, don't bottle your feelings up inside. Talk to your mom and dad. Talk to your doctor. Talk to your science teacher or counselor at school. Things are a lot less terrifying when we understand them.Tips for Parents
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases, the possibility for transmission of AIDS is extremely low in situations of casual contact and normal school behavior. The AAP's school health committee believes that children with AIDS can safely be in school as long as precautions are taken. Routine procedures should be used if an AIDS child gets hurt at school. Gloves should be worn when cleaning up blood, and spills should be disinfected with bleach or an equivalent disinfectant, and persons coming in contact with these should wash their hands afterward. Blood-soaked items should be placed in leakproof bags for disposal. Hand washing after contact with a child is routinely recommended only if physical contact has been made with the child's blood or body fluids, including saliva.Catherine O'Neill is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.