Dec. 1 was World AIDS Awareness Day.

In the 80s, education on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was mandated and every school at least made an attempt at teaching the topic. Now, it seems as if teaching ways to prevent HIV transmission is an afterthought. I dusted off and updated this column from November 2009. In that column, I responded to these questions:

Can you get AIDS if you hug someone? – 13-year-old

Only gay people get AIDS, right? So, if I’m not gay I’m clear, right? – 15-year-old

If neither person has AIDS will certain kinds of sex make AIDS happen? Like, even if no one is infected, it could happen? – 14-year-old

What is AIDS anyway? – 13-year-old

As a sexuality educator in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, I received thousands of questions about HIV/AIDS. Some were serious and showed real fear; other questions demonstrated a lack of knowledge about infection in general and sexually transmitted infections in particular. A few questions made me laugh.

“You don’t ever need to worry about getting AIDS, huh, Mary Jo?,” a sixth grade boy once asked

As I pondered how to respond, he added: “Because – don’t get mad – when people get too old they just don’t do it no more.”

I asked how old was “too old,” his response of “30” still makes me smile.

The true challenge for me as an educator is those questions were asked years ago. When AIDS was nearly always a terminal diagnosis young people were afraid. That fear led to questions about exposure and infection. AIDS was on people’s minds. Despite the many questions I receive from young people daily, I seldom am asked about AIDS now. The movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” briefly revived questions as the diagnosis of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen whom the movie focuses upon, became known to this generation’s students. Their curiosity was more about his music than his death.

I hosted our first Washington County AIDS Awareness Day program in 1993. We held the event on the Washington courthouse steps. Nine schools participated in an hourlong program. More than 300 students sang, performed skits and did readings. I met Dr. Bert Campbell of First Presbyterian Church when I asked him to do the invocation with Rabbi Albert A. Goldman from Beth Israel Synagogue. Bert became a wonderful mentor whose inclusive vision of faith and wisdom about death and dying influenced me personally and professionally. Our peer educators called the day “AIDS Day” and it was a major event.

Teen Outreach went on to coordinate AIDS Awareness Day every year. The program was variously hosted at the courthouse, inside the George Washington Hotel, at Citizens Library, First Presbyterian Church, our Common Ground Teen Center, our office and on Washington & Jefferson College’s campus.

Over the years, the program became smaller in scope. Schools participated less. I will teach about HIV at our weekly peer educator meeting. Our peer educators are always involved, but even their passion for the event waned as AIDS became a chronic condition. Fear gave way to complacency and complacency led to apathy.

The answers to the first three questions about AIDS are simple.

No, you can’t transfer HIV through casual contact like hugging.

No, people of all sexual orientations can become infected with HIV.

No, HIV is not spread without infection. The virus doesn’t spontaneously erupt from sexual contact. One individual must be infected to spread the virus.

The answer to “What is AIDS, anyway?” is more complex.

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by infection with HIV. A blood test can show if a person is HIV-positive. Many people are HIV-positive and not sick; there are now medications to help. My memory releases faces of so many promising young adults who died in the 80s and early 90s, and my heart breaks. Bias was rampant, infected people were often treated without respect. My philosophy of each person as a person of worth was solidified then.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a pill for people who do not have HIV, but are at high risk of getting the virus. It prevents HIV infection.

A person takes a daily pill (Truvada) which contains two medicines – tenofovir and emtricitabine – that are used in combination with other medicines to treat HIV. When someone is exposed to HIV through sex or injection drug use, these medicines can work to keep the virus from establishing a permanent infection.

HIV can be spread from sexual contact or contact with infected blood from sharing needles. It also can be spread during pregnancy or child birth. Breastfeeding can spread the virus. Again, it is not spread trough casual contact.

I encourage young people to get informed, stay aware, communicate with potential partners, and make healthy choices every single day. Trusted adults, please talk about HIV with the young people in your lives.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email

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