Recently the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania denied admission to a 13-year-old applicant. Despite his many academic and personal achievements, this boy was denied admission for fear that his HIV-positive status would “put their children at risk.”
Is this reminding anyone else of Ryan White? I was absolutely astonished that in this day and age, a school would even think of refusing a child admission because he was HIV-positive. When Ryan White was diagnosed, even the uppermost government health officials were uncertain about HIV contagion and transmission. Now, more than 25 years later, we know much more about the virus. Denying a child the chance for an education because he is HIV-positive is inexcusable.
Let’s go over how HIV is transmitted. We are actually quite lucky that HIV, compared to other viruses, is so hard to catch. There are three main routes: sexual activity, sharing needles, and mother-to-child transmission.
Most teens in the U.S. who contract HIV get it from unprotected sex. Teens who choose not to be sexually active lower their risk of sexually transmitted diseases to 0%. Any sexually active teen should be using condoms, which are very effective at preventing HIV transmission.
A teen using intravenous drugs is also at high risk for HIV, and should never share needles (and hopefully stop using IV drugs). Most U.S. women are screened for HIV if they become pregnant, and nowadays medications can help lessen the risk of transmission.
Some teens have sex with other teens, obviously, whether or not they live in a dorm at a boarding school or live at home with their parents. They should use condoms in any setting. HIV-positive teens who want to be sexually active should speak with their health care providers and their partner(s) about risks and ways to lessen them.
One would hope that a boarding school atmosphere would not encourage higher rates of drug abuse than normal, and the mother-child transmission is not applicable here.
Let’s talk about things that DON’T carry a risk of spreading HIV. These include living with someone; sharing food, food utensils, clothes, toilet seats, swimming pools, or sleeping space; hugging; kissing; playing sports (including contact sports); insects biting an HIV-positive person and then someone else; coughing or sneezing, and about everything else except sexual activity or sharing needles.
The only body fluids that contain HIV are blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. Everything you would expect someone at a boarding school to do with their classmates does not carry a risk of catching HIV.
We see many HIV-positive patients in Adolescent Medicine, and the majority of them are living normal teenage lives. They go to school, have friends, date, play sports, work, and look at colleges. While teens with HIV do have to take medications, and perhaps watch their health more than an HIV-negative teen, they are expected to function normally and live long, productive lives.
The Milton Hershey School is obviously acting on faulty information. I hope that with the help of medical and public health professionals, they are able to get past their outdated prejudices and let this teen have access to the education he deserves.