'Understanding HIV' can save teens from perils of ignorance

Two things stand out from "Understanding HIV: Does Teen America Know the Facts?" a worthwhile, teen-oriented documentary airing at 8 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

The first, unfortunately, is that the answer to title question clearly seems to be no. A number of teens interviewed for the special pose questions whose simplicity shows a level of ignorance hard to understand after a decade of public discussion of AIDS.


The young TV stars featured in the program -- Tempestt Bledsoe ("The Cosby Show"), Ian Ziering and Gabrielle Carteris ("Beverly Hills 90210") and Chad Lowe ("Life Goes On") -- debunk some of the misconceptions. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome is not contracted from sharing milk cartons or using the same public bathrooms or through kissing.

Rather, teens take risks primarily through unprotected sex or sharing needles in drug use.


The program concentrates mostly on sexual transmission. Ms. Carteris and several others in the show note that sexual abstinence is the best defense, but the stronger message stresses that protected sex is the next best and vital step.

Viewers should know the show discusses and demonstrates condoms, and also avoids any euphemisms that might blunt understanding. Not at all titillating, the hour offers a good, basic primer on a subject facing all young people.

But a second standout feature of "Understanding HIV" offers some genuinely uplifting and perhaps surprising stories. They demonstrate the human capacity for meeting adversity by reaching out to help others.

For instance, we meet an HIV-carrying rap artist named Choice, who performs a song whose lyrics include, "Protect yourself before you wreck yourself."

A young runaway teen who was involved in promiscuous homosexual activity and also abused drugs now organizes efforts to counsel other teens at risk. Similarly, a young woman with HIV now says, "If I am blessed, I want to make a difference" in preventing others from suffering her fate.

At a center in Los Angeles for homeless runaway teens, Mr. Lowe -- his continuing character of Jesse in ABC's "Life Goes On" is an HIV-infected young man -- introduces us to young people answering telephones and helping their peers on the street. And a local theater troupe performs a play whose leading character asserts, "I'm AIDS [and] my job is to kill as many of you as possible."

Such focus on real young people who are taking positive steps to help others lifts "Understanding HIV" above many a public service documentary on the subject.