Earlier this month, I took a course on bloodborne pathogens as a requirement for my work with youth. One of the things we talked about was the process of investigating an exposure to a potential bloodborne pathogen. I learned that—unless there is an exposure—neither students nor their parents have to disclose to the school if the youth is infected with a bloodborne pathogen, such as HIV or hepatitis.
To me, it is perfectly clear why someone wouldn’t disclose carrying a bloodborne pathogen: There’s still a lot of stigma and bias around these types of medical conditions, particularly HIV. This point was driven home recently when three children were removed from their Arkansas school district because they might be HIV-positive. A 2011 study found that nearly half of Americans expressed discomfort about having their food prepared by someone who is HIV-positive and 27 percent would feel uncomfortable if their child was in a classroom with an HIV-positive teacher.
These statistics demonstrate a lack of understanding about how bloodborne pathogens are transmitted—generally through sex, but also through used needles, accidental exposure to infected blood at work and, until 1985 in the United States, through blood transfusions. It’s evidence that there’s still a lot of myth and stigma around people who are infected with a bloodborne pathogen.
Personally, I struggle to understand why people remain so afraid of HIV. Perhaps it’s because when I was growing up, my mom’s best friend fostered “high risk” babies—including HIV-positive children and children with AIDS. Perhaps it’s because one the first young adult (YA) novels I ever read was Lurlene McDaniel’s Sixteen and Dying, in which a high schooler can’t bring herself to tell her crush she has HIV (from a pre-1985 blood transfusion). Perhaps it’s because I have a family member who died (of other causes) while HIV-positive.
As an educator, one of the things I can do is make available for the youth I work with YA books like Sixteen and Dying and Courtney Scheinmel’s Positively—books that discuss HIV, AIDS and transmission and promote a message of not stigmatizing the young adult characters who are living with HIV or AIDS. With older youth, I might also be able to show How to Survive a Plague, a documentary that features activists from AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) discussing how they struggled with the health care industry (and against stigma from the general public) to provide funding for drug research that now makes HIV a manageable condition. Showing this documentary is a prime opportunity to talk about what types of biases activists have to overcome and whether these biases still exist today.
Most communities have HIV and AIDS advocacy and outreach projects that can provide speakers who can answer questions about transmission and about supporting people who are HIV-positive. Hopefully, ongoing education will allow our youth—and colleagues—to have their questions answered, assuage unspoken fears, and help us all face myths and biases that still surround HIV and those who have it.
Clift is a writer and a substitute teacher with a focus on youth labeled with behavioral issues. She also develops and delivers programs for seventh- to 12th-graders in nontraditional settings.