Living with HIV/AIDS, part 4

Clare Howard

Lisa Roeder's spacious corner office captures morning sun, bulges with documentation and looks like the work environment of any busy professional -- except for one tell-tale indicator.

There is a handmade ceramic bowl filled with condoms on her desk, a practical and symbolic reminder of her fierce conviction that people have the right to truth and complete information regarding the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"We get 18- and 19-year-olds who learn they are HIV positive. That means they were HIV positive in high school," said Roeder, social services coordinator at the Heart of Illinois HIV/AIDS Center. "It's devastating for them. We hear them say time and again, 'I just didn't know.' It's heartbreaking. We have counselors and grief therapists to help them."

The ceramic bowl was a school art project done by one of her sons.

"My sons were born after the time when an AIDS diagnosis meant a death sentence. Today you can get treatment, but medications have side effects," she said. "You can live a long time, but not with the quality of life before an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, and eventually patients become disabled."

Roeder said she began talking with her sons about HIV/AIDS when they were 11.

"You shape the message so it is age appropriate, with moral values and beliefs. It's not all about safe sex. There is a much grander message," she said. "But it is also about access to complete information. The only responsible decision is a well-informed decision. It is a miscarriage of justice not to inform."

A recently released nine-year national study of sex education concludes abstinence-only curriculums fail to curtail sexuality among adolescents. Students completing these curriculums lack accurate information about the effectiveness of condoms to protect against HIV/AIDS.

The research study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found students enrolled in abstinence-only programs are just as likely to have sex as other students. Students in both categories had their first sex at the same age, 14.9 years.

'Ironic and Hypocritical'

The Rev. Thomas G. Bayes Jr., pastor at First Baptist Church of Peoria, said the report underscores concern that federal spending has exceeded $1 billion on abstinence-only programming that is not researched-based but shaped by politics and myth.

"Ironic and hypocritical," he said, referring to the government's demands for research-based programs in other areas except sex education.

However, Bayes stressed he favors teaching abstinence but in combination with comprehensive instruction in how to be safe. Short of that combined approach, abstinence-only does a "disservice to our community and our children," he said.

In other areas, including driving, drinking and drugs, students are given accurate information, "but with sex, we go silent," he said, noting that approximately 80 percent of Americans indicate they want comprehensive sex education in the schools.

Looking for Answers

Some proponents who believe comprehensive sex education can help control the spread of HIV/AIDS contend the report means federal funding for abstinence-only curriculums should cease and resources should be shifted to other comprehensive programs.

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, said HIV/AIDS is an epidemic that must be fought with education.

"I support education programs that reflect the values of the community but also realism that unless we have comprehensive sex education, we are not giving people the best information possible to fight this," he said.

"It would be like giving cancer patients only half the information. We'd never think of doing that. With sex education we have different hangups and values and think we shouldn't be talking about sexual activity. Nonsense. This is a dreaded disease."

LaHood said the administration has requested more than $25 billion in 2008 for treatment, research and prevention programs dealing with HIV/AIDS. His travels in South Africa helped him reach the conclusion "money is best used by educating people about how to prevent AIDS."

LaHood said community awareness about the degree of the problem comes first, and then "we have to recognize our inhibitions about sex education and put them aside. Education has to be comprehensive sex education."

Peoria public schools do not have a mandated comprehensive sex education program for all students. Peoria schools and those in other communities nationwide that accept Title V, Section 510 federal money for sex education are mandated to teach abstinence-only curriculums which cover contraception, including condoms, only in terms of failure rates.

Dr. David Gorenz, president of the Peoria District 150 School Board, said he can't speak for the board or the administration, but personally he favors abstinence-only instruction in schools.

"That allows me (as a parent) to have my choice about teaching other aspects not taught in school. The solution to this is well beyond the school district. It is a family issue. A community issue that has to be dealt with. All that can't fall on the schools to do," he said. "Until there is consensus in the community or at the state level, I have personal reluctance to take that decision away from parents."

Peoria schools have significant budget problems and can't give up federal funding in order to add comprehensive sex education to the curriculum, he said, suggesting that other community organizations and churches might be better suited to provide this instruction. For parents reluctant to teach their children about sex, Gorenz suggested community-based programs might help.

'It's Not Going Away'

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said: "The reports of increasing rates of HIV infection in central Illinois are alarming, and studies to date have not provided any compelling evidence that infections will be reduced through abstinence-only education. We must insist that sex education programs are comprehensive, and that they give young people both the knowledge and the tools to prevent infection."

Michael Maginn, executive director of Central Illinois Friends of People with AIDS, said his organization has tried to work with the Peoria public schools on a comprehensive sex education curriculum stressing prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"They have been unresponsive," he said.

Roeder said education and outreach departments at HIHAC have also been rebuffed by District 150.

"There is not a county in central Illinois without HIV/AIDS," she said. "It's not going away. It's growing. When people think it is not an issue, they get careless. We had a 20-year-old intake today. It's emotionally devastating."

There is no stopping the spread of the disease or promoting acceptance of those infected unless people communicate, she said.

State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, has HIV/AIDS. He has championed programs to combat the spread of the virus and said "recent scientific studies have shown abstinence-only does not have the desired results. Comprehensive sex education that includes abstinence is more effective."

State Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, said he'd be interested in working with Harris to discuss possible legislation regarding comprehensive sex education that includes accurate information on how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"We want to bury our head in the sand and ignore the problem," he said. "But HIV is becoming an increasing problem for the minority population and women."

Brook Lampkin, HIV educator at the Peoria City/County Health Department, teaches a curriculum provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I would love to get into Peoria public schools with this (curriculum)," she said.

The push for abstinence under Ronald Reagon's administration did not help curtail the spread of HIV/AIDS, said Douglas Pavkov, clinic manager at Heart of Illinois HIV/AIDS Center.

"We need to do a better job educating about HIV/AIDS, but HIV/AIDS is suddenly off the radar screen, not being talked about. But 40,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Treatment is better, meaning more people are living with HIV, so everyone gets a smaller slice of the federal pie. Funding is flat," he said. "How do you reduce those 40,000 new cases each year? Politics has put a spin on this but people have a right to know good information regarding HIV/AIDS. Instead of preaching just abstinence, we have to preach protection."

Stopping the Spread

Enrollment in Peoria public schools is 59.7 percent black, and the No. 1 cause of death among black women ages 25 to 34 is AIDS. African-Americans now account for more than 500,000 of the 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in America.

The Rev. Harold Dawson Jr. of New Hope International Ministries said HIV/AIDS is epidemic in the black community.

"Education is pivotal," he said. "I can stick my head in the sand and not recognize this epidemic exists, could say that the problem doesn't belong in the church, but it is here in our congregation and our community."

In addition to education, Dawson believes testing is critical to containing the spread of the virus. He is interested in establishing his church as a testing site.

"I'll stand in the front of the line. I will preach, I will be tested, I will push for comprehensive sex education," he said. "If you think there is a tension between advocating for abstinence and teaching about protection, I'd suggest our priority should be making sure people are safe. How can you know this problem exists and not do anything about it?"

Another advocate for comprehensive sex education to control the spread of HIV/AIDS is the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

"It's not rocket science. We know how to stop the spread of HIV," said John Peller, director of state affairs with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. "When we look at what works, it is science-based prevention programs."

Peller said the Mathematica Policy Research study should "make taxpayers concerned with federal funding that is being wasted. Abstinence-only programs don't work and don't decrease the rates which teens are having sex."

His organization lobbied for state legislation to allow adults to purchase clean syringes and dispose of used syringes in special containers set up in pharmacies. That law is credited with a 42 percent decline in the spread of HIV/AIDS among intravenous drug users without a corresponding increase in the number of users.

"I don't live with HIV/AIDS, but I have grandkids, so I make HIV/AIDS my business. It is the business of everyone in this community," said Janice Owens, vice chairwoman of the Minority AIDS Awareness Council. "The bottom line is what are we going to do about this?"

Clare Howard can be reached at 686-3250 or