Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Stamford schools commemorate World AIDS Day

STAMFORD -- Stamford Public School students are learning about AIDS prevention this week as the community commemorates the 22nd annual World AIDS Day Wednesday.

The Stop AIDS Mobile Theatre, a traveling theater group that performs short skits designed to educate student, is making stops at each of Stamford's three high schools and three middle schools this week.

"They basically use humor, even though it's such a serious topic, because they have found that helps to connect to students," said Debra Katz, director of HIV programs for the city's health department. "It opens them up to hearing the information and learning."

AIDS is caused by HIV, a virus that is spread most often through sexual contact; it can also be spread by mother to child through childbirth or breastfeeding or by contact with infected blood, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can take several years for HIV to turn into AIDS, a disease that attacks the immune system and gradually destroys the ability to fight off diseases.

The acting troupe has been visiting the city's public schools for several years; more schools sign up to participate each year, Katz said.

"We've been hosting events for about 10 years," said Terry Harrison, a nurse practitioner at Stamford High School's school-based health center.

Read more:"They talk to students in health classes about different scenarios -- what it's like to live with AIDS or HIV -- and they put on skits for kids," Harrison said. On Wednesday, the group will host two shows at Stamford High School, as well as one at both Dolan Middle School and Scofield Magnet Middle School.

"They ask them different questions about how to say no, and using protection. It does get down and dirty," Harrison said. "They're very specific, (students) will ask very specific questions and (the performers) won't pull any punches when it comes to keeping the kids safe."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 200,000 Americans are living with HIV, but do not know they are infected. That represents about one in five of the total number of Americans who are infected, according to the CDC. Worldwide, more than 33 million people are living with AIDS. The program at Stamford High will be geared toward ninth- and 10th-grade students. Tuesday's performance at Rippowam was for eighth-graders. The performances change depending on the age of the students in the audience, according to David Torres, director of health care programs for Family Centers.

"When teachers happen to be there, they are often moved and appreciate and are able to gain further insight and awareness about HIV. It works on so many levels," Torres said.

While Torres said he remembers "a world without AIDS," Stamford students were born after the disease was recognized in 1981.

Torres said many students do not associate the disease with the negative stigma it once carried, but growing up in a generation that sees AIDS as "another one of the world's realities" also makes the disease seem less serious.

"I think the urgency about prevention, because it's so engrained into the fabric of consciousness ... it's lost some of its urgency. It's not as threatening," he said. "Some kids get the message -- and adults too -- that it's a treatable disease and it's not a scary as it was."

There is no cure for AIDS. "While we like to lend hope to folks who are diagnosed, that's certainly not the way you want to live your life, with HIV, taking medications. So prevention is always key," Torres said.

The theater troupe tackles the issue of prevention in more than one way.

"We don't do abstinence only," said Katz. "We want to stress the only sure way not to get infected is to be abstinent from sex, but we go on to say that if that's not what's happening, you absolutely need to use a condom and this is how to use one."

The educational program also provides students with knowledge about additional resources in their school and community, such as testing options.

Staff Writer Maggie Gordon can be reached at or 203-964-2229 203-964-2229 .

The health department's HIV testing program provides free HIV tests for anyone over the age of 13, Katz said.

The CDC recommends everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested at least once. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the National Institute of Health, 55 percent of Americans have never been tested for the disease.

"World AIDS Day is a good day to remind folks that HIV and AIDS is still here in Stamford. It's in our community. There are folks that need our help and we continue to do the best we can to educate and prevent new infections," Torres said.

Staff Writer Maggie Gordon can be reached at or 203-964-2229 203-964-2229 .

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