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Chapter 4: How am I at risk?

“AIDS is still a problem in certain parts of the world, but not in developed countries.” “HIV/AIDS only affect certain kinds of people, like homosexuals, drug addicts or prostitutes.”


i. Though it’s true that the HIV/AIDS statistics are higher in certain communities, or in certain parts of the world, anyone, anywhere can get it. Times are gone when only “certain kinds of people” got AIDS: the virus knows no age limit (new-born babies or old people can get it), and 65% of infected people today are heterosexuals. Most of them are women. The danger in certain “higher-income” countries today is that people think the risk has become smaller, which makes them less careful. The reality is, in a country like France, to take just one example, 150,000 people are infected – and an estimated 40,000 are HIV-positive without knowing it! (Figures provided by the Sidaction campaign which, from 23-25 April 2004, wants to sharpen up people’s awareness and vigilance in France – see www.sidaction.org (in French).)

To know where your country stands statistically, see www.avert.org/statindx.htm.

Regardless of country and background, certain unexpected high-risk groups have been identified, such as:
• young people (including children)
• girls (because their anatomy makes them more vulnerable to infection during sexual intercourse, and because they are often victims of sexual pressure)

To know more, see:

www.staying-alive.org/en/knowfacts_03.jhtml (“Who gets AIDS?” - 6 out of 10 people infected are under 25 years old.)
www.goaskalice.columbia.edu/Cat7.html (sexual health, sexually transmitted diseases (STD) and women...)
www.thebody.com/basics.html (Who gets HIV/AIDS? The site looks at a whole list of categories and assesses the risks: health-care workers, armed forces, older people, women... and many more.)

ii. “It’s not who you are, but what you do that determines whether you get AIDS”

“Think AIDS has nothing to do with you? Think again.”

The question we should ask ourselves is not whether we belong to a group identified as “high-risk”, but whether we do things or are involved in activities that put us at risk: unsafe and unprotected sex, sharing drug needles and syringes, these could all make you vulnerable to infection... because you never know if the other person might not have HIV. Staying HIV-negative is each person’s duty and personal affair – never drop your guard, and act smart. Prevention is the only way, and only you have the power.

Makes you think: “when we have unprotected sex with a partner, we’re having sex with everyone the partner has had unprotected sex with!” (www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/teenpamphlets/ywoc.htm)

What then is high-risk behaviour, you may well ask yourself:

• Is any sex dangerous? (There is such a thing as high-risk sex)
• What about kissing? (No, very rare.)
• So what about my sex life? (There’s also such a thing as safer sex)
• What about drugs? And piercing? (Never share needles, you never know where the other person has been.)
• What if I’m HIV-positive – am I putting my partner at too much risk? (There are ways of still enjoying a fulfilled love life, but protecting your partner is now your responsibility – explore other ways of being intimate without having intercourse, and if you do, wear a condom)

“Where do you lie on the risk meter?”
Rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 8 on the site www.lovelife.org.za/kids/search/results_final.php?newsarticle=354.

Here are some sites that have information on high-risk behaviour, and ways to protect yourself:

www.staying-alive.org/en/knowfacts_03.jhtml (AIDS does not discriminate...)
www.youthhiv.org/health/hiv/transmission (High-risk and low-risk sex... HIV-positive people can still enjoy a love life.)
www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/teenpamphlets/ywoc.htm (unprotected sex, women...)

Unfortunately, it’s not always our choice whether we get exposed to high-risk activities. Sometimes they get forced on us, like rape or sexual harassment. Sometimes people, especially children or women, find themselves in vulnerable situations: prostitution, intergenerational sexual pressure, etc. These are particularly sensitive issues, and you may even hesitate to discuss them with the people around you. These sites give information and advice:

www.tarsc.org/auntstella/html/questions.htm (Teenagers ask questions about pressure from teachers and people in a power position)
www.sxetc.org (Click on “abuse and violence”: they discuss types of abuse, sexual harassment, with personal stories written by teenagers... Direct link: http://www.sxetc.org/index.php?topic=Abuse+and+violence&PHPSESSID=566dbb9e5eb254594f5d23650b27a9a6)
www.teenwire.com/index.asp (Under “Dating, love, sex”: advice on pressure, rape, etc.)
www.iwannaknow.org/brain2/peerpressure.html (What is peer pressure and how does it affect me? Ways to avoid Peer and Date pressure (including date rape...))
www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/teenpamphlets/ywoc.htm (explaining why African-American women are a particularly vulnerable group)

When you have been the victim of sexual abuse and especially rape, get counselling immediately, and find out when and where you can be tested for HIV. (You may have to wait a few months (3 in most countries, 6 in the USA) before the test can show an accurate result.)

iii. Certain social conditions may also mean that people are more likely to be exposed to unwarranted pressure and risk regardless of their choice: poverty, gender, exploitation, certain cultural practices... You may for instance live in a culture or conditions where your right to choose and to say “no” is not respected. (This is especially true for girls and women, in certain communities.) Or in a society where promiscuity is common and where your attitude and desire to protect yourself may not be taken seriously. Sometimes, in certain societies, having sex young – and preferably unprotected – is seen as a sign of virility and maturity, and this may be forced on you. You could also be the victim of cultural customs – for instance where a male family member “inherits” a deceased husband’s widow – or frightening superstitions, such as the belief in a certain region that a man can be cured of AIDS if he has sex with a virgin, which often leads to the rape of very young girls. In all these cases – though some of them may be extreme – you could feel very isolated and vulnerable. These websites tell of people in similar circumstances:

www.tarsc.org/auntstella/html/questions.htm (Questions from Zimbabwean teenagers, for instance: “Does my culture mean I must sleep with my sister’s husband? (chiramu/sibale)”; “Should I have sex to pay my school fees?”)
www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/teenpamphlets/ywoc.htm (The vulnerable position of African-American women)
http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/yoc.htm (There is a disproportionately high infection rate of youth of colour in the USA – why is this, and what can be done?)

See http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/culturalcompetency.htm, on “Cultural competency”:

“Youth who face prejudice and discrimination by virtue of their identity, life experience, or family circumstances, disproportionately experience teen pregnancy and HIV/STI infection. Such young people may include youth of colour, those from low-income families, immigrants, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth (GLBTQ). Research often focuses on the socio-economic factors—such as poverty, family distress, and access to health care—which contribute to teenage sexual risks. However, researchers focus little attention on the effects of discrimination that is based on age, race, gender, class, and sexual orientation.” Click on this site to read more.

How you could escape from circumstances or a situation that on the surface “leaves you little choice”.

Available resources for this topic (some samples):

Explore different topics on HIV/AIDS

 Who am I?
 What is HIV/AIDS?
 Others and me
 How am I at risk?
 Living with HIV/AIDS

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