What Children Can Teach Us About HIV

12/06/2011 07:06 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

Last week on World AIDS Day -- amid talk about an historic opportunity to create an AIDS-free generation -- we were reminded that the stigma and ignorance surrounding this disease is not necessarily a thing of the past.

The news that a 13-year-old-boy -- called "Abraham Smith" to protect his identity -- has been banned from attending a school in Pennsylvania because he is HIV-positive brought back a flood of memories from an earlier and darker time in the history of the AIDS pandemic.

It was twenty-six years ago that a 13-year-old Ryan White was also denied attendance at his middle school in Indiana.

In those days, while the medical community had already concluded that the risk of transmission through casual contact was almost non-existent, a lack of public awareness about the disease led to discrimination against those living with the virus.

Children with HIV were also a rarity, and suffered from inadequate treatment -- both medically and ethically.

Today, the medical community is even more confident about how HIV is and is not spread. We also know how to prevent virtually all new infections in children, and treat those who are already living with the virus. HIV-positive kids now have access to safe and effective medicines that give them a chance to grow up and lead full, healthy lives.

If those medicines had been available earlier, Ryan White might have lived to celebrate his 40th birthday on December 6th. The image of him as a brave child advocate is so emblazoned in our collective memories, that it's hard to picture him as an adult.

We've come a long way fighting pediatric AIDS since then. Thanks to years of research and advocacy on pediatric drug development, we now have a whole generation of children with HIV who are thriving. As they enter adolescence and adulthood, there are still a host of unresolved social and medical issues that need to be addressed.

Incidents of discrimination like the kind Ryan White experienced should be a thing of the past. But stories like Abraham's, and that of young Caleb Glover from Alabama -- who just a few years ago was banned from a community pool because he had HIV -- are proof that we still have a long way to go.

This most recent case in Pennsylvania should raise red flags for all of us that there is still much work left to do to combat stigma and discrimination, and deal with the unmet needs of children with HIV.

If Ryan, Caleb, Abraham, and others have taught us anything in the past thirty years of AIDS, it's that we can and should do better for our children living with HIV.

Watch below to see a thirty-year history of HIV and children, and how to finish the job of creating an AIDS-free generation.