AIDS epidemic makes puppy love dangerous

PRETORIA, South Africa — Oh, to be 18 again. Fresh skin, first kiss, first love …

Frankly, I don’t want to. I live in South Africa, which has the world’s largest population of HIV-positive people — 5.7 million.

Nine neighboring countries have the world’s highest HIV prevalence, with more than 15 percent of adults infected. The region accounts for 2 percent of the world’s population and 35 percent of all HIV infections. I live in the global epicenter of AIDS.

Here, sex, flirting and romance are never wholly free of the long shadow cast by AIDS. When do I bring up condoms? When do I suggest getting tested? With whom has he or she slept before? When do we stop using condoms? Who can I trust?

One of the saddest things about the AIDS epidemic in Africa is that a generation of young people cannot discover and enjoy sex as freely as their parents.

And if they do, we parents panic, and rightly so. By nature, teenagers ignore risk: They are reluctant to wear seat belts, helmets and condoms. And do they listen to their parents?

I have made a career of writing about sex, gender and AIDS. These topics are frequently discussed at home. My friends are as passionate about AIDS as I am because AIDS is fascinating: It illuminates every fault line of society.

So you can imagine my shock when I realized that my 18-year-old daughter and her girlfriends worry more about becoming pregnant than getting infected. The pill is more important to them than a condom.

I probed. It turns out that students at their affluent high school perceive AIDS as a disease of the poor, the black, the foreigners — the others. Not them.

The school did a good information job around rape, Rohypnol (the “date rape drug” used to spike drinks) and hard drugs. Useful, for South Africa’s twin epidemics are AIDS and rape.

But the school dwelt more on how to avoid forced sex than how to have safe sex.

I sensed that my talk about condoms and AIDS was not getting through. Until one recent Saturday, when we had lunch with friends from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa at a Portuguese restaurant in Pretoria. The prawns were divine, the white wine chilled, the weather balmy.

Mario, though, was very thin. He said he had pneumonia and meningitis — that is code for AIDS. I understood. He ate slowly and looked around proudly when he finished the plate: good food into his frail body. He had started taking ARVs, he was recovering.

The next Saturday, Mario hanged himself. The burden of being HIV-positive was too heavy. The following Sunday we attended his funeral.

On Monday, a teacher told the class her brother had died of AIDS.

Then it hit my daughter. AIDS is among us. AIDS is not a disease of the others. The next day I drove her to get tested for HIV.

Testing is a truly sobering experience. When you realize the risks you have taken, you pale, you promise yourself never to do it again, to be careful, to use a condom. When you get a negative result, you pledge to keep it that way.

Mario’s death got the risk lights flashing for my daughter. Bless him. May his soul rest in peace in a place without pain or stigma.

Today, I learned that a friend’s 20-year-old daughter contracted the virus from her ex-boyfriend. They had already split when she tested positive. She does not dare tell him. She can hardly cope with the news herself, she can’t cope with the blaming game that might ensue. So the young man may well be infecting girls around Pretoria. This is scary. This is why we parents of teens in southern Africa worry about their sex lives.

Two years ago, at the Women and AIDS Summit in Nairobi, I interviewed one of the leading researchers on microbicides (a vaginal gel to kill the virus).

She said that she had started the research 20 years ago thinking her pre-teen daughter would benefit. Her daughter is now married and a mother. The researcher now dreams of developing a microbicide to protect her grandchild.

We were on the same wavelength: two mothers wishing the young could enjoy sex without the shadow of AIDS.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Africa's fight against AIDS:

Africa cuts against AIDS, a special series about the new campaign for male circumcision.