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Published:May 11th, 2007 05:12 EST

AIDS Silently and Swiftly Sends Sounds of Sorrow Worldwide

By Krzys Wasilewski

It has been active for more than a quarter century and has killed more than 25 million people. In the United States alone, 41 men, women and children die of it every day. It attacks slowly and quietly. Unlike most such illnesses, it lies dormant for years before until it strikes its lethal blow. Its official name is Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, but everyone knows it simply as AIDS.

Rita is a 26-year-old woman living in South Africa. At first glance her story is a fairy tale: a steady job, a loving husband she met at university, a beautiful daughter. “I consider myself well-educated and ambitious,” she begins her testimony. But her idyllic life is burdened with one secret: Rita has AIDS.

Rita’s first symptoms appeared several months after she had unprotected sex with her husband. She would catch colds more often, and every now and again, a rash would appear on her ebony neck. “The doc suggested I take another test, I refused by saying I wasn't ready for the stress; and besides, I was sure I was negative.”

Why shouldn't Rita be confident? She had been faithful to her husband and, before they made their decision to give up condoms, she had taken an HIV/AIDS test. The results were negative. She was not infected.

Yet, as days passed, Rita became more and more ill. Her common cold would not disappear; coughing spasms turned her nights into an endless torment. Her skin visibly bleached: heavy make-up had to be applied to conceal the spots, also called “lesions.” After battling with herself, Rita finally made a decision to take another test. This time, the doctor snuffed out her remaining hope.

“I thought my life was over. Okay, I know what they say about HIV no longer being a death sentence; but, in my mind, my life as I knew it was over. In fact, I started thinking of ways I could end my life.”

Of course, it was Rita's husband who had transmitted the virus. Although he had been faithful, his previous girlfriend had not. Sometimes the passion of the moment won over common sense, and before they thought of protection, it was over. You know how it is: drugs, alcohol, parties until dawn. One can forget oneself. When they broke up, it did not strike him to get tested.

Later he met Rita and life was beautiful again. Why didn't they both take the test before unprotected sex became their daily routine? Her answer is shockingly blunt, “We were too scared it would spoil our happiness,” Rita finally admitted.

In South Africa– a country of 45 million people– one in eight is HIV positive. Among these, only a small fraction receives the proper treatment; the rest must seek help from witch-doctors who often prescribe herbs or sex with a virgin as the fastest cure. The government pretends not to see the problem. If AIDS makes it to television, it is usually a derivative of a bigger scandal.

For example last year, the entire South African nation watched as its vice president was accused of raping his secretary. What shocked South Africans and a foreigners was not the fact of the rape itself, but the behavior of the politician. He knew that his secretary had AIDS, yet he did not use a condom; instead, he took a hot shower after, as “the best way to protect myself from the infection.”

It gets worse. If you think that AIDS is the domain of poor Africa only, you could not be more wrong. Of the 46 million people infected, only half of them number lives on the continent. It is estimated that from 500,000 to one million virus carriers reside in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, AIDS shatters all racial and social barriers: the numbers of white and black people who are HIV positive are almost equal – 35 percent of all infected in the United States and 44, respectively.

What is more alarming is that it is not drugs or homosexual intercourse which claim the largest toll of victims; 65 percent of women with HIV/AIDS got the virus through heterosexual contacts.

Loke, from Alabama, wants her story to be an example for others. She met her husband at church, “I'm going to marry you,” were the first words he told her. What girl wouldn't have wobbly legs after hearing such a statement from a complete stranger? Six months later they were married. Their honeymoon did not last long, however– about a month after they said their vows, one phone call from the clinic changed their lives.

“I have HIV,” her husband informed her. He had taken drugs as a teenager, needles were shared and one of his companions must have had the deadly virus buried in his blood. At first, Loke forgave her husband. “I thought I knew that I couldn’t possibly be infected since I didn't use drugs and am not stupid I was.” They continued to have unprotected sex for a period of time, until she felt a considerable decline in her health. The doctor confirmed her worst fears – she had HIV.

Right now, Loke is in the middle of divorce proceedings and hopes she can lead a normal life, even with a time bomb ticking in her body.

Part of the problem is the attitude towards sex in American society. “Our country's approach to sex education closely resembles those of highly restrictive societies . . . we'll glorify violence and sex on television, but we won't portray safe, responsible sex,” admitted Robert Hanson, Vice President of Marketing for Levi Strauss in his interview for the Harvard University Gazette.

Such movies as “American Pie” and “Scary Movie” are directed to reach an adolescent audience, glorifying free, no-strings-attached sex rather than warn teenagers about the consequences of such behavior.

Venetia's story perfectly matches Robert Hanson's gloomy picture. Her parents were gone from home and it was her turn to throw a party. She invited her close and not-so-close friends to her home. “Ya know, all the usual: drunk people, drugs, and sexually active college dudes. It was a good party and I was wasted and stoned.”

At around three in the morning she came across “a cool, handsome, funny, and, well, hot man.” The next thing Venetia remembered, she was lying on her bed and he was quite professionally undressing her.

“Then we started making out and he was very good at it. He unsnapped my bra in one second, and then I took my pants off and shirt, etc. and we started having sex...sideways. We didn't use protection but he pulled out...” Then, Venetia goes on, describing in lurid detail what happened next.

What is the most striking is the openness with which Venetia writes about her first time. She portrays herself as a character from one of her favorite movies. Only later does she add that she is only 15. Fortunately, she was lucky enough to walk away from it without being infected or becoming pregnant.

Unfortunately, girls like Venetia are not in the minority– those who become sexually active at 15 or younger usually end up as teenage mothers at best, HIV positive at worst.

Although more than 90% of Americans agree that sex education should be taught at schools, only a small number of those surveyed could indicate which aspects of sex their kids should learn. Even among students, opinions vary.

For example, George, a student at a private Christian school, says, “I, myself, don't believe in sexual education at school-- for girls especially. They are way too emotional.  Some worthless, punk boy who has no respect for women comes along and sweet talks a girl into having sex.”

On the other hand, Bea, a 13-year-old girl also from a private school, thinks there should be more sex education. “We don’t learn about oral or any other sexually related things that we NEED to know,” she stresses.

“Kids need the truth; and yes, they can handle the truth!” says Cathy, a California public school teacher.

But what is the truth? If one agrees kids should receive sex education, then the question becomes: what should their education include? Is it appropriate to teach a 13-year-old student about oral sex?  About the risks connected to it?  Teachings in the techniques and methods thereof?

Some believe that the best protection against unwanted pregnancy and AIDS is abstinence. As John, an 18-year-old college student studying business administration said, “You have to stay prayed up and know what you want out of life. You don't want to limit yourself. Having babies or getting AIDS is not on your route. If you're focused on your goals, peer pressure shouldn't faze you.” John said definitely.

John is a handsome football player and devout Christian who believes that premarital sex can only distort any serious relationship. In one issue of Today's Christian, he said,“I've seen some Christian guys and girls who start having sex, and they change. They still go to church, but their spiritual lives become fake.”

Specialists are divided as to which solution proves most efficient. It is true that abstinence bears no flip side; but, in a time when sex has become one of the pillars of modern society, it could be naive to expect teenagers to live up to this ascetic ideal.

Therefore, here are your ABC’s for protecting yourself against AIDS:

A.  Abstinence

B.  Be monogamous

C.  Condom-- if  A or B are beyond you, use a condom

Whatever choice we make, we must learn from the mistakes of Venetia and Rita. They have learned their lesson the hard and heart-breaking way. We still have this priceless privilege to learn from the misfortunes of others rather than suffer personally-- we must not waste it.