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Book Helps South African Children Understand AIDS - 2002-07-26

A new book has been launched in South Africa to teach children the facts about HIV and AIDS. The book, called Staying Alive, is being given for free to thousands of young people around the country. The author is hoping her project will dispel dangerous myths and misunderstandings about the deadly disease.

Fran Balkwill is a British biologist who has written many children's books about science over the last 10 years. But when a friend approached her about doing a book about AIDS for children in Africa, she hesitated. She had never been to Africa before, and didn't know how to approach the project.

So Ms. Balkwill and illustrator Mic Rolph traveled to South Africa last year to speak to children about AIDS, a disease that affects roughly one-fifth of the population here. She asked the children what they wanted to know.

"And it didn't matter where we were, from the most well-resourced high school in Pretoria to the poorest rural school in Kwazulu-Natal, to the squatter camp and everywhere else, the kids all asked the same questions!" she said. "And the content of the book is what the kids told us they wanted in it."

Ms. Balkwill and Mr. Rolph spent nearly three weeks talking to kids around the country. They wanted their book to be based on science, but they found out they had to deal with a lot more than just germs and cells.

"One of the questions the children asked us time and time again [was], 'Where did it come from? Where did this virus come from?' Because a lot of them think it's a curse from God," she explained.

The result of all their research is a book called Staying Alive, Fighting HIV/AIDS. It targets children anywhere from 10 to 17 years old, and covers everything from basic biology to using condoms for safer sex.

"There was a lot of thought about how we should start off. Should we start off immediately saying this is a book about a very dangerous virus called HIV/AIDS?" said Ms. Balkwill. "But we realized that most of the children, and this would be true of children anywhere in the world, don't have a particularly good idea of what a virus is, what a bacteria is."

The idea is to make sure young people have the facts about HIV and AIDS, where it comes from, what it does, and how you can get it, or make sure you don't. The author hopes Staying Alive will help dispel the dangerous myths about AIDS that still circulate in much of Africa.

The book is full of colorful illustrations, some of them drawn by the children themselves in the schools Ms. Balkwill and Mr. Rolph visited last year. All too many of them have seen first-hand what AIDS can do some had recently lost their parents to the disease. In one picture, a young Johannesburg boy drew a man before and after he is infected with HIV.

"He looks reasonably fit if a little thin before, but afterwards he looks much paler, and he's using a [walking] stick, and you can see his ribs, and his hair's gone from black to gray. And this obviously must be based from personal experience," said the author.

In pictures, Staying Alive presents the HIV virus itself as a spiky green ball, with red eyes and fangs. It is scary and mean-looking.

The book also contains several pages of relatively graphic illustrations about sex, including a walking, talking penis wearing a condom.

"We had a lot of thought about this, but all our advice from people here was that with the level of the epidemic here, this is absolutely what needs to be done," she said.

The author and the illustrator have come back to South Africa not just to launch the book, but to get feedback from the people who helped them write it. They have brought 19,000 copies of Staying Alive with them, and are handing them out to children around the country.

John Inglis, who heads the publishing company, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, explained, "It is not intended to be a moneymaking effort at all. We've started with a small amount of funds from several different sources. And our hope is that we can interest a major foundation in the U.S. in giving us enough money to realize the dreams that we have for the project."

The dream is to distribute more than a million copies of Staying Alive to children all over Africa. But they are quick to point out that Staying Alive is not only an African project, just as AIDS is not only an African disease. The South African version of the book, they say, is just a pilot project, to find out how children respond. Eventually, they want to translate the book into scores of languages, and they hope young people all over the world will be able to read it.