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Health Professionals, Educators Tackle Touchy Subject : Teens Hear Some Plain Talk About AIDS

March 29, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

If you have daughters, put condoms in their purses. I keep a row in my drawer. My son knows I don't want him to need one but I assure you I'd rather have him disagree with my value system and be alive than disagree with my value system and be dead.

--Los Angeles school board member Jackie Goldberg, mother of a 12-year-old son.

With no apparent self-consciousness, the group of seventh through 12th graders, boys and girls, had just watched a no-punches-pulled film on AIDS and had discussed in some detail the risks of anal sex and oral sex. Now, a boy raised his hand and asked, "Can you get AIDS by biting your nails?"

The question seemed symbolic of the confusion with which today's pseudo-sophisticated teen-ager is facing the fact: AIDS kills. And one way you get AIDS is by having sex.

The statistics on teen-agers and AIDS are not in themselves cause for alarm. Although almost 33,000 Americans have contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome since record-keeping began in mid-1981 at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and 19,000 have died, there have been only 135 cases in the 13-to 19-year-old group. In Los Angeles County, according to the Health Department, there have been five teen-age victims, four of whom have died.

Long Incubation Period

But health professionals, noting the long incubation period for the AIDS virus--five to seven years or more--point out that one in five victims has been in the 20-29-year-old group. "Subtract that five years from 20," said Wendy Arnold of AIDS Project Los Angeles, a nonprofit community service organization, "and what do you get? Fifteen. We feel teen-agers and adolescents are being exposed."

"It's clear," said Dr. Joseph Church, professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine and Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, "that there are certain behaviors that put people at risk. One is sexual promiscuity and number two is intravenous drug abuse, and teen-agers who are exploring their own sexuality or experimenting with illegal substances are going to be at risk."

The medical profession does not know when, or how fast, the numbers will increase, Church added, but he mentioned data from U.S. Army studies of recruits indicating that up to 4% of young black male volunteers from New York are infected with the virus.

Childrens Hospital here has seen only one infected teen-ager, a boy who denies either homosexual contact or IV drug use. But he is, by Church's description, "a street kid with home-placed tattoos and pierced ears" who has shared tattoo needles with friends.

Dr. Kenneth Williams, a pediatric hematologist who chairs the County Medical Assn. committee on AIDS, also spoke of the "potential threat." Despite the small number of established cases among teen-agers, Williams said, the fact that 1 million teen-age girls become pregnant each year in the United States means that teen-agers are not using birth control, including condoms, which while not foolproof are considered the best barrier to transmission of the AIDS virus.

(Planned Parenthood estimates that, by age 18, eight in 10 males and seven in 10 females have had intercourse--and that most wait at least nine months after their first intercourse before seeking contraceptive advice while only one-third use birth control regularly and one-third never use it.)

'Immortality Syndrome'

There is an additional obstacle to getting across to teen-agers the message about condoms--the "immortality syndrome." Said Williams, "Youth doesn't feel that they have to deal with death or the threat of dying. But here we're talking about a lethal disease. It's not like herpes or gonorrhea or syphilis."

Medical professionals who work in clinics serving teen-agers report increasing patient concern. "My own vision," Church said, "is that teen behavior will change when significant numbers develop the symptoms and die before their classmates' eyes."

In the past, acknowledged Williams, many physicians "have not felt comfortable talking about sexual issues" with adolescent patients, but he sees it as a doctor's responsibility to counsel those who are sexually active on "safe sex," which means using condoms and spermicides.

Church agrees, adding, "I think it has to be emphasized to them that the best way to avoid getting this disease is abstinence."

The state PTA has endorsed a bill by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) that would mandate showing of an educational film about AIDS in all junior and senior high schools. State PTA president Donetta Spink says parental education is also vital, that there is still "a lot of resistance" to teaching children about sexually transmitted diseases.

"Birth control is more pertinent than AIDS" among her peers, said Rebecca Bowers, 17, of Modesto, a student member of the state PTA board. "AIDS isn't what pops into your mind" in making a decision about being sexually active, she added, "it's unwanted pregnancies."

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