'Urgh, you've got Aids, man'

18th February 2011 at 00:00
Charity campaigns to dispel HIV myths that persist in schools and beyond

Peter was 12 years old when he found out he was HIV-positive. He immediately burst into tears.

"I remember thinking: 'I'm going to die. I'm going to die'," he said. "My life is a ticking bomb."

But Peter, now 23, knew that he could not tell any of his classmates at his east London comprehensive. "I used to be part of the jokes in the playground," he said. "So I know exactly what people would say. They'd say, 'It's from monkeys', or, 'It's just gay people'. That's what I used to think, too."

A survey by HIV charity Body and Soul has revealed this week that while 81 per cent of pupils understand that HIV cannot be transmitted by sharing a cup, some 27 per cent are still unwilling to do so.

In an effort to change these attitudes, Body and Soul is today launching a new set of classroom resources, intended to dispel common myths about the virus.

"People use Aids as a casual insult, the way they use 'gay' as an insult," said Gary Aubin, drama teacher at Claremont High in Brent, north London. "They say, 'Urgh, you've got Aids, man'.

"But none of them would ever say, 'You've got cancer' in the classroom because people would say, 'That's not fair, that's not on'."

The charity has also announced plans to run a competition, inviting pupils to audition for a film depicting teenagers who live with HIV. The film will then made available for use in schools across the country.

Jed Marsh, the charity's assistant director, said: "There's still an association of death around HIV. We wanted to present real stories of young people living with the disease: something beyond the factual, scientific, academic side. We wanted to create a climate where people will feel confident disclosing their status."

Eighteen-year-old Christine hopes the film will help people like her. Her father died of Aids-related illnesses when she was three years old; even her best friend does not know the cause of his death.

"I just knew I couldn't tell them," she said. "They wouldn't want to be around me any more. It'd be an excuse for them to isolate me, and say not very nice things about me.

"People have this genuine belief that you can catch it from sharing a drink or sitting on a toilet. They're genuinely petrified about it."

It's an experience that resonates with Peter. "People have to live a double life because of people's preconceptions. Schools should have lessons where people can have some empathy towards people who are suffering."

Twenty-one-year-old Max was born to an HIV-positive mother: he was infected with the virus from birth. "I'm not resentful," he said. "It's not something anyone had any control over. I was just unlucky.

"People forget that you can catch it just by being born. People associate it with homosexuality and gays, with sex or drug use or whatever."

But, he said, it is almost impossible to correct these misconceptions in school without arousing suspicion. "I know people who've done that, and other people have come up to them and said, 'Are you HIV-positive?'" he said. "Then they've been subjected to taunts and jibes.

"It's sad that other people's misinformation and lack of knowledge can dictate the terms of someone's life."

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