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Threat to teens of HIV persists; churches can play key preventive role

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (BP)–More than 15 years after the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was first discovered, the plague of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) continues to permeate human society, including the world of our teens.
AIDS and other forms of sexually transmitted diseases continue to attack teens of this country in disturbing numbers. Each year 12 million people are newly infected with one or more STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). Sixty percent of these are under the age of 25. Of the teens who are sexually active, one in four will acquire an STD infection prior to graduating from high school. Any sexually active teen has a significant risk of HIV infection.
Most of our teens know something about the dangers of HIV infection and AIDS but do not see the raw ugliness behind its all-too-familiar words. There is evidence that familiarity breeds carelessness and indifference. While some leveling off of infection rates occurred in the early 1990s, an increase in rates may now be occurring.
More disturbing is the fact that among sexually active individuals there is less concern and precaution. In a survey reported in 1997, fewer teens were concerned about getting AIDS in 1996 than were concerned in 1991. The number who said they were very concerned dropped from 34 percent to 24 percent. But we know that HIV can be passed to another person through just one sexual contact. Certainly teens with many sexual partners (both heterosexual and homosexual) are most vulnerable to infection.
Infection with HIV and subsequent AIDS is as devastating as ever. Body fluid contact with an infected person carries a risk of infection. The virus is passed from person to person only in two or three ways: tainted blood (rare today with the current screening methods), IV drug use with contaminated needles and sexual intercourse (heterosexual or homosexual). Very rarely, the virus may be passed by accident where there is body fluid contact (accidental needle puncture during medical treatment or contact with blood from an infected person). Once contaminated with the virus, a person is not likely to have symptoms right away. This lack of immediate symptoms often lulls the teen into a false sense of security. Some infected individuals may become ill within a few weeks, but months — even years — may pass before symptoms show up.
However, once it starts, AIDS is relentless. The devastating effect of HIV infection is due to the crippling of the immune system, producing acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS. The weakened immune system makes the affected person vulnerable to a variety of bizarre infections and malignancies. Drugs may hold off the progression of the illness for a while, but progression is inevitable once infection has started. Due to the insidious nature of HIV infection, a person may have the virus and be contagious without having any outward signs of illness for a considerable period of time.
The news from the treatment front also continues to be bleak. We have known for a long time that once the HIV virus is in a person’s system, it is there forever. No cure exists to this day. Medical researchers have worked diligently with billions of dollars being spent on research. Antiviral drugs will slow the pace of the infection, even hold it in check for a while, but none of them will cure it or slow the effect of the disease forever. Once AIDS has set in, premature and often painful, distressful death is inevitable.
In spite of monumental effort to find a way to immunize persons to HIV, no sure preventative measures have been discovered. Again, large quantities of money and energy have been spent on vaccine development, but as yet, there is no hint of hope. At the most recent conference on AIDS, researchers reported on many new treatments. While there were glimpses of hope that some drug combinations would slow the disease a little, the overall mood was somber. The HIV virus obviously remains elusive and difficult to fight. (It was reported at this same conference that researchers have apparently solved at least one long-standing mystery of the AIDS epidemic: Where did the virus come from? The answer, according to a team of scientists from the University of Alabama, is that the virus originated in chimpanzees in west-central Africa. The virus initially spread to human beings by contact, probably by killing the chimpanzees for food.)
Adolescents are at particular risk of HIV infection, according to the infectious disease experts. There are several reasons for this increased vulnerability. A teen’s immune system is not as capable of fighting off the initial infection as is that of an adult. It also appears that a teen’s genital organs have less defense against all STDs. This may be due to the fact that the membranes are thinner and less protected by mucous. For some reason, when a teen is infected with another STD, he or she is more susceptible to catching HIV when exposed.
Psychological reasons are also important. We know that adolescents are sensitive to peer pressure. In today’s society, there is overwhelming pressure for teens to be like other teens. We see this in dress, music preferences, recreational activities and speech. When they hear that “everyone else is having sex,” they feel the pressure to conform to the perceived norms. Early adolescence, particularly, is a time of fragile self-esteem. The easy acceptance which comes with sexual availability can be tempting, especially to the teen who lacks self-confidence.
As the decade of the ’90s has flown by, certainly the depiction in TV, movies and print media of sex as a casual, meaningless experience has become pervasive to an extent we did not imagine early in this decade, much less a decade or two ago. “Safe sex” has been preached by government and many professional organizations as the only way to protect oneself.
However, some good, exciting things have happened. There has been an increased focus on abstinence education as an alternative means of HIV and STD prevention in many circles, including several state and local governments. We have seen the phenomenal success of the “True Love Waits” campaign and related emphases. And now there is good scientific evidence this kind of approach is having a significantly positive effect on our youth.
The Sexual Health Update, a newsletter published by The Medical Institute for Sexual Health, reported recently these interesting statistics:
— Virginity is up 11 percent overall.
— The prevalence of multiple sex partners is down 14 percent.
— For the first time in a decade, the number of students sexually active fell below 50 percent.
These statistics indicate a reversal in a 20-year trend that began in the 1970s. “This encouraging information strongly suggests that community-wide efforts that point adolescents toward sexual abstinence can result in dramatic further decreases in sexually transmitted diseases and nonmarital pregnancy rates among teenagers,” the Update reports.
The most intriguing and encouraging report comes from the Journal of the American Medical Association. The journal reported on a comprehensive study that looked at risk factors, including sexual behaviors, affecting adolescent health. These scientific researchers identified an intriguing association: “Adolescents who reported having taken a pledge to remain a virgin were at significantly lower risk of early age of sexual debut.”
The researchers also found “a higher level of importance ascribed to religion and prayer was also associated with a somewhat later age of sexual debut.” In addition, the study found “parental expectations regarding school achievement were associated with lower levels of health risk behaviors: parental disapproval of early sexual debut was associated with a later age of onset of intercourse.”
All of this is great news on several fronts:
— Religious conviction and commitment make a difference in the life of teens.
— The act of pledging themselves to a course of action, i.e., abstinence, as is done in True Love Waits emphases, has an important reinforcing effect on healthy behavior in teens.
— Concerned, involved adults, particularly parents, do make a difference in the life choices of teens.
Sexually transmitted diseases are a fact of life today for teens. The teen who is not engaging in risky sexual activity certainly is likely to know someone who is. The temptations of our permissive culture are overwhelming, even to our most faithful teens. Therefore, it is important for all of us to be well aware of the vulnerabilities of teens and the risks which lurk around every corner.
It is important for youth ministers to make sure their youth workers are educated about STDs so they can be sensitive to the needs of teens. Often a teen will confide in a trusted adult leader such as a Sunday school teacher even when he or she is fearful of talking to parents or other professionals.
Today’s teens need to have clear, scientifically accurate and biblically based sex education, including information about STDs. A comprehensive church program, correctly designed, could be the best way of helping teens through the morass of sexual “hype” and misinformation our society throws at them. Such a program should be factual and honest. It should show understanding of the sexual pressure teens are under while giving them good reasons to be abstinent and monogamous. Fortunate is the youth minister who has caring health-care professionals in his church (nurses and physicians, social workers) who would help him or her put together a comprehensive sex education program. An excellent resource is the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which provides full curricula as well as other resource materials. This is a Christian nonprofit organization operated by health professionals. Write Medical Institute for Sexual Health, Box 4919, Austin, TX 78765.
The greatest defense teens have against unwise sexual activity is a firm grounding in the Christian faith which gives them a strong sense of purpose and self-worth. Many teens who engage in premature and promiscuous sexual activity do so out of a longing for meaning, acceptance or escape from an unpleasant, painful existence. A healthy, vibrant, Spirit-filled youth program can help youth experience a sense of worth which is grounded in their unique creation by God. Such a vibrant faith can help them find this meaning and the affirming relationship they long for. Then they do not have to experiment with risky behaviors in a vain search to fulfill their needs.
Most importantly, the church must meet the needs of families. Fortunate is the church which has a planned, organized ministry to families. Parents and children can be helped to grow together and learn how to relate. In this milieu, the church can provide both teens and parents with comprehensive knowledge about healthy sexuality. Strong, loving, communicating families are the best defense against unwise sexual experimentation by our teens.
Yes, our young people live in a dangerous world — a world which entices them into self-destructive behaviors with uncertainty and confusion. Every day teens must make critical decisions affecting their health, happiness and destiny. The good news is that in this world of violence, indifference and cynicism, our teens do respond to caring adults who present the life-affirming options of the Christian faith. Let us not give up. Let us keep working.

Grant is a pediatrician at Southwest Children’s Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas. Reprinted by permission from Youth Ministry Update, published monthly by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • Wilson Wayne Grant