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New Children’s Book Explains AIDS

July 28, 2002

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ A green pock-faced monster with red eyes and fangs is depicted as the HIV virus in a new children’s book that seeks to explain the science of AIDS to South African children.

In the book, ``Staying Alive, Fighting HIV/AIDS,″ colorful pictures and simple text describe how the deadly HIV virus invades the immune system and multiplies throughout the body.

By explaining the science of the virus and giving frank answers on how it is transmitted, the book’s British authors and American publisher hope to teach the children of South Africa how to stay safe.

One in nine South Africans is HIV positive _ the highest rate in the world.

In researching the project, author Fran Balkwill and illustrator Mic Rolph, both from London, spoke to South African children _ from those living in shacks in poor townships to those attending affluent suburban white schools _ to ask them what they wanted to know about AIDS.

``They essentially wrote the book for us,″ said Balkwill, a cancer researcher who has co-authored several children’s science books with Rolph.

They recorded their interviews with the children who all wanted the same questions answered: how one is infected, is there a cure, what is a vaccine?

The book, published by the New York publisher, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, is being distributed free to 20,000 South African children.

It is aimed at children between the ages of about 11 and 17 and its backers hope to raise more money so it can be distributed to all South African children. Eventually they also hope to make versions of it available to children in other countries where the disease has also reached epidemic proportions.

In South Africa an estimated 4.7 million people are infected with HIV. Thousands of children have been orphaned and the virus is spreading most rapidly among the young.

Denial of the scope of the crisis both on a government and community level has made educating the public a special challenge.

The book is explicit in its message that HIV is most often transmitted through sexual intercourse.

It emphasizes that couples should practice safe sex and tells children, ``You can protect yourself and the people around you, if you start to understand HIV and all its tricky ways.″

Pictures of condoms in a rainbow of colors worn by a cartoon penis are shown and the ABC’s of sex are given. A is for abstinence, B is for being faithful and for being tested and C is for condoms and for caring about each other.

No one should be forced to have sex, the book admonishes and AIDS cannot be cured by having sex with a young girl, it says. In South Africa the myth that sleeping with a virgin cures AIDS is prevalent.

South African AIDS activists welcomed the book.

``Explaining to a 13-year-old (how) to prevent HIV is not just about understanding it is going to kill you, but how the virus works,″ said AIDS activist, Mercy Makhalemele, who herself is HIV positive and has a daughter who is infected and a son who is not.

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