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COMMENTARY : Plain Talk About Sex, AIDS Is a Matter of Life and Death

December 05, 1991|FRANK SOTOMAYOR | Sotomayor is editor of Nuestro Tiempo

Magic Johnson has an important message: safe sex. But there is much more to AIDS education than that. And our entire society, including our Latino community, which often is reluctant to talk about sex, must now deal with AIDS.

Magic's courage as he battles the HIV virus is laudable and his AIDS education efforts are commendable. But I fear that his initial comments left our teen-agers with the impression that the only thing required is to use condoms when having sex. It is not that simple.

A recent study found that 50% of California high school students said they had had sexual intercourse. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that more than 2 million teen-agers nationwide contract venereal diseases each year through sexual contact. Because the primary route of AIDS transmission is having sex, the implications of those statistics are staggering.

Even if teen-agers experimenting with sex are able to get condoms and know how to use them, they are not 100% safe.

Ana Rosa Rodriguez, of the American Red Cross, says teen-agers who hear her presentations are often "surprised and scared when we tell them that condoms do not provide 100% protection (against AIDS), that condoms are difficult to put on, that they can break."

She said "many teen-agers have no ideas what safe sex is all about." They listen intently to her presentations. "We do talk about safer sex," said Rodriguez, "but we stress the importance of postponing sex until people are emotionally and economically prepared for possible consequences."

The American Red Cross, in a brochure for students, advises:

"The best and safest way for teen-agers to protect themselves against AIDS is to abstain from sex. . . . Lots of people are saying 'no' to illegal drugs and alcohol. People have a right to say 'no' to sexual activities."

That to me is the correct message for our teen-agers. But "just saying no" is not the entire solution.

Some teen-agers will continue to be sexually active. For them, knowing about safe sex and using condoms are vital; for those who have risked unsafe sex, having an HIV test is equally vital to determine if they are carrying the virus.

Because there is no cure for AIDS, education about this dreaded disease must be a priority in our schools and in our homes.

This crisis is the appropriate time to end the belief held by too many Latino families that sex is a dirty word and is not fit for a parent-child discussion. As Dr. Aliza Lifshitz says in an accompanying article, "When you are talking about AIDS, you're talking about sex, and sex is . . . not discussed among Hispanics."

Those of us who are parents must get rid of any embarrassment about the subject and talk to our sons and daughters in a clear and caring way. But first we must be informed, which is something everyone should take the time to do. Many organizations will mail informational literature on AIDS; free telephone hot lines will take our calls anonymously and answer our questions.

The AIDS virus is destroying the lives of people of all racial and ethnic groups. However, an alarming trend is occurring in the Latino community of Los Angeles County. The number of Latinos with AIDS is growing more rapidly than in any other ethnic group--from 318 AIDS cases in 1987 to 556 last year.

U. S. Surgeon Gen. Antonia Novello, a respected Latina physician who is the nation's leading public health official, made a plea last September when she visited Los Angeles to discuss the AIDS epidemic. She said the family should become "the first school of health" in the United States.

In today's world, open discussions--in the family and in the school--about sex are a matter of life or death.

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