Small-town Texas school shaken by 6 cases of HIV

February 14, 1992|By Jeff Rude and Jonathan Eig | Jeff Rude and Jonathan Eig,Dallas Morning News Staff writer Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.

BOGATA, Texas -- At a small high school in this small town, the AIDS virus has struck in a big way.

Six students at tiny Rivercrest High School -- enrollment 197 -- have tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

At a time when Rivercrest is more used to worrying about its basketball team's schedule, administrators are working to stop panic and start educating students and parents about AIDS.

School officials say they don't know how the six students got the virus, and they don't know when, where or why the students had the tests. But when the results came back positive and the students sought counseling in October, their school district was notified.

Some health experts say it is remarkable for a school as small as Rivercrest, about 100 miles northeast of Dallas in Texas' Red River County, to have so many documented cases. Others say there are schools like Rivercrest all over the country, and thousands of teen-agers are carrying the AIDS virus -- only those schools and students don't know it yet.

Dr. Albert Saah, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, said clusters of HIV infection can easily occur once the virus enters a small isolated population of sexually active teen-agers.

"Once infection is introduced into a relatively isolated area, your likelihood of having a sex partner who is HIV positive is higher," he said. "You're more likely to run into someone who has had sex with someone who carries HIV."

Teen clusters also could easily occur in an urban area like Baltimore, where larger numbers of people are introducing the virus across a larger Dr. Saah said. He added, however, that he did not know of such clusters in Maryland.

Dr. Lloyd Kolbe, director of adolescent and school health at the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said 796 AIDS cases had been documented in the nation among people age 13 to 16. But he said there was no way to tell how many more teen-agers had contracted HIV because thousands could have the virus and not know it.

"There's no question that young people are infected and are becoming infected with the virus through heterosexual as well as homosexual intercourse," Dr. Kolbe said.

Whatever the number, it is rising quickly, he said. More than half of all high school students have had sex, and many are not taught to use condoms, he said.

Rivercrest school officials say they are moving quickly to educate students and their parents.

Last week, students watched a film about AIDS. Teachers have been issued rubber gloves and told to treat all injured students as if they had the AIDS virus. A basketball player who suffered a cut during practice this week was told to leave the court to wash and cover the wound.

Rivercrest administrators say they do not know which students tested positive, but they do know that none is involved in extracurricular activities, said Freddy Wade, superintendent of the Talco-Bogata Consolidated Independent School District.

Still, some players have elected not to compete against Rivercrest's varsity basketball team. Two junior varsity basketball games were canceled because opponents and their parents feared infection.

Mr. Wade said he hoped Rivercrest's experience would heighten AIDS awareness rather than provoke irrational fears.

"What bothers me is that we've taken a step forward to educate our community, and rumors persist, and our team is being singled out," Mr. Wade said. "We have a problem, and we're dealing with it."

Dona Spence, the HIV-AIDS case manager for the Ark-Tex Council of Governments in Texarkana, said the six students came to her agency for counseling in October. All six told the agency they had contracted the virus through heterosexual contact.

Rivercrest's principal, Ray Miller, said he was proud that students were not conducting a witch hunt to find their classmates with the virus.

"We're not trying to make moral judgments on anybody," Mr. Miller said. "We're just saying, 'Here's what you've got to do to prevent it.

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