Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 9 News List

US AIDS babies now growing up

AP , Chicago

If ever there was a time to tell her big secret, this was it, the seventh-grader thought.

She and a few friends -- in pajamas at a sleep-over birthday party -- had sequestered themselves in a storage closet under a basement stairwell. They sat in a circle, some on the floor, some on boxes, and talked for hours, promising, "Whatever we say here stays here."

One girl shared her fear that her parents were on the verge of divorce. Another said she felt pressure to live up to her brother's example.

There was silence for a moment. Then the girl who'd kept quiet for so many years took a deep breath and blurted a few quick words.

"I have something to say," she said. "I'm HIV-positive."

Until then, her friends had simply known her as their fun-loving buddy, the honors student, the girl with sarcastic wit who was as likely to use a big word they didn't understand as to address her friends as "dude." She was the group's prolific short-story writer who also liked to escape for hours in a Harry Potter book or science-fiction story. She was the one with a reputation for embarrassing her friends by wearing goofy clothes in public or singing at the top of her lungs as they walked down the sidewalk.

Now her friends knew something more: She was born an "AIDS baby" -- a term only vaguely familiar to most people her age, since they were little kids when most HIV-positive children were born in this country.

Early on, the diagnosis was a death sentence, with few children living long enough to attend kindergarten. Eventually, however, new AIDS drugs emerged and the prognosis brightened for a population of young survivors who have quietly but tenaciously outlived life-expectancy predictions.

Many of those young people now are reaching adolescence -- a confusing and sometimes anxious time for anyone -- making "coming out" to friends and people they're dating that much more difficult.

"It is a complicated, sophisticated and terrifying task that they should not be expected to master alone," says Erin Leonard, a social worker who counsels HIV-positive teens at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital.

Her clients include the teen who revealed her HIV status at that birthday party two years ago. (The Associated Press reached the girl through her doctors and Leonard. The teen, her family and friends spoke on condition of anonymity.)

Now 14 and a freshman in high school, she is glad she told those few friends, who seem to have taken the news in stride.

"I was a teensy bit worried about how they would react. But it all turned out OK," she says with a nonchalance that belies the magnitude of her revelation -- and the steps she sometimes still takes to hide her secret.

This is a girl who stopped taking her medication during the two weeks she was at camp this summer so her counselors wouldn't ask questions.

To protect their privacy, and to avoid hassles and discrimination, she and her parents also have chosen not to share her condition with the principals and teachers at her schools. (According to legal experts, Illinois law requires that public health officials -- not the family -- inform her school, and then only if she develops full-blown AIDS.)

For now, the teen also has not told her boyfriend.

"When I do tell him, I want him to know that he's special for having known it," she says. "But I'm freaked out that if I tell him, every time we make out, he's going to think, `Oh my God.'"

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