I was saddened and outraged today to read a news story about a 2-year-old boy banned from a pool because he is HIV-positive. It brought back memories of a painful chapter in our country's history, when children, like Ryan White, were barred from school because they were living with the virus that causes AIDS.
We should know better by now. When Ryan White's family was told he could not return to his Indiana middle school, it was 1985 and the public knew very little about how HIV was passed from one person to another. That was over 22 years ago. Since then, scientists have learned a great deal about how HIV is transmitted, and almost as importantly, they have discovered how HIV can not be spread.
After I read this story, I called Dr. Ric Marlink -- an HIV/AIDS specialist who works with me at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation -- and told him what happened with Caleb at the pool in Alabama. Dr. Marlink's reaction was similar to mine -- he was sad for Caleb and his family. But he was also concerned that this reflects an overall lack of awareness about the "facts" of HIV/AIDS.
Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer considered an automatic death sentence, public awareness of the virus has fallen off. We who work in this field accept certain truths about HIV as common knowledge, but perhaps we should seize this opportunity to remind the public of what is scientific fact.
HIV can not be spread by casual contact. HIV has never been spread through swimming in a pool, hugging a friend, or sharing a meal.
Back in 1985, children like Ryan White faced an uncertain future. There were few treatments and children infected with HIV were not expected to live very long. Thanks to effective medications for HIV/AIDS, children living with the virus have a real chance of growing up healthy and living an entire lifetime. For many of these kids, there is nothing holding them back -- they are graduating high school and college, becoming doctors and parents. As we're helping children with HIV live longer and healthier lives through medicine, there is no excuse to let fear and ignorance get in their way of a happy childhood.
For more information, please visit www.pedaids.org.