The theme for World AIDS Day (1st December), the fifth year running, is ‘Down to Zero’ – zero new infections, zero discrimination, zero related deaths… Can we also add zero reluctance when it comes to talking to your teen about it? India has witnessed a 19% reduction in new HIV infections (as per 2013 data) while the estimated prevalence of infection is 0.3%. But, given the huge population of our country, that figure comes to a hefty 2.1 million people living with HIV.
While we have seen some positive progress in recent years, there is a long way to go. Serious efforts need to go into spreading awareness, busting myths and providing authentic information. “A lot more communication about HIV among
youth (say from the age of 14) is important,” says Dhivya Ramalingam, former member of Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (TANSACS). “We’ve had several workshops at schools and colleges to address this section of the population.”
Talking to your teen about HIV
Your teen, in all likelihood, knows a lot about HIV and AIDS. It’s not uncommon for parents to go out of their way to avoid having ‘the talk’; or worse, resorting to the blind ‘thou shalt not’ attitude, both of which are detrimental to the well-being of a child. It is an awkward subject in general, more so when you have to accept the realities of a generation that’s probably not like your own. Devi Gopalakrishnan, a former Senior Editor at a renowned publication says, “Talking about sex
was taboo when we were growing up. The relationship we shared with our parents was one of reverence and unquestioning obedience. It was quite unthinkable to even broach such a subject with them. Today, the youth is far more aware of sex and sexuality. It has become imperative for parents to let go of their own reservations and speak openly with their young about the danger of irresponsible sex. In no way is this an encouragement to engage in relations of a sexual kind. However, it is important to equip youngsters with the information required to make better choices."
Tattoo and HIV?
Tattoos have been quite hot among teens for several years now. ‘Have you tattooed yourself’ is one of the first conversations teen friends have these days? Says Dhivya, “Tattoos and body piercings are very much a part of changing lifestyles. Awareness about the practice is important simply because it’s an extremely common practice.” The HIV is quite fragile and needs an active medium for transfer. Going by this criterion, tattoos and body piercings are technically not high risk factors. But, you also need to be certain tattoos are safe. While there is no conclusive evidence to suggest tattoos are linked to HIV, the potential threat cannot be ruled out. You can’t keep your teen away from the tattoo parlour. At least, make sure she finds a registered place for her piercings, check if the equipment is sanitary, the needles used fresh and clean.
Drugs and needle-sharing
As recent studies indicate increasing numbers behind teenage drug abuse, it’s all the more important for parents to educate children about its life-altering downsides. It’s important to warn your teen about the dangers of drug abuse, including the possible infection of HIV. Injecting drugs and sharing needles is a huge risk factor for HIV and a growing concern among Indian teens. Opening up channels of communication helps nurture an environment of trust and responsibility, which it makes it more likely for a ‘prevention than cure’ approach.
When in doubt, get tested. When you think you’ve put yourself at risk, get tested. When you think your child could be at risk, get him tested. Says Dhivya, “We encourage people to get tested before marriage. If tested positive, one can find help with counsellors about life beyond HIV.”
Despite progressing so much in terms of HIV intervention, and to large extent, prevention, we’ve hardly scratched the surface when it comes to dealing with discrimination. “Of course, stigma and discrimination are still present,” says Kousalya Periasamy, founder of Positive Women Network and one of the first women in the country to declare that she was HIV positive. “HIV positive children still hesitate to share the information among their friends. All that they get are fear-based messages. Because of the fear, the stigma continues. So, in our workshops and sessions, we share our life stories. By giving them an idea of living with HIV, we hope to make a change in how they view the life of a positive person. It’s important to remove the idea that HIV positive person equates to a bad person.”
Lack of awareness is a major threat to the battle against HIV. The reluctance to get out of one’s comfort zone to address sensitive subjects has contributed its fair share to the issue. It’s high time you start the conversation in your family. Remember, ‘now’ is always the best time to do anything.