For more than three decades, the Pediatric AIDS Program at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School has cared for patients and their families. It provides free testing, runs support groups and spreads the message that although new treatments have largely made AIDS/HIV a manageable disease, the need for education and prevention remains.
Now the program is helping to bring a high school senior a step closer to the most prestigious award the Girl Scouts of America bestows. In turn, Jaimie Jasina hopes to bring a classroom of her peers closer to understanding the realities of AIDS and HIV in the 21st century.
When Jasina stands before fellow students at John P. Stevens High School in Edison, PowerPoint presentation playing on the screen in front of her, she will share sobering statistics about a disease that first began claiming victims in the 1980s.
“In the United States alone, more than 1 million people are living with HIV, and one in every five of those people does not know it,” Jasina says. “Schools don’t always teach that 2.5 million adolescents are infected by HIV/AIDS worldwide. I want to bring to light that this is a sexually transmitted disease, and that if people think they have the disease, they should be tested.”
The Gold Award is the highest offered by the Girl Scouts, a rough equivalent to the Eagle Scout ranking conferred by the Boy Scouts of America.
“When Jaimie came to me seeking to do a project about HIV, I said the best approach would be to spread awareness at the high school level,” says Roseann Marone, program coordinator for the medical school’s AIDS initiative since 1990 and one of Jasina’s official mentors for the award.
Marone encouraged the 17-year-old to teach her contemporaries that HIV can be passed from mother to unborn child, as well as through unprotected sexual activity, injected drugs and breast feeding.
“If young people knew how the disease is transmitted, they would take precautions,” says Marone, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the medical school. “But if you ask patients how much they learned in school about AIDS, typically they answer 'very, very little.'”
Statewide, an estimated 35,000 individuals are living with HIV, including about 900 children, the Rutgers professor says. New Jersey ranks third out of the 50 states in the number of children who were exposed to the disease while still in utero. “A lot of my friends didn’t know AIDS/HIV could transfer from mother to child,” says Jasina, who worked with Marone to craft her 45-minute presentation.
For the past three years, Jasina has attended holiday parties sponsored by the local Ronald McDonald House, where she has interacted with patients and forged bonds with their parents. She has also participated in an educational session sponsored by the Red Ribbon Campaign at Rutgers, an effort by the Children’s AIDS Network on campus to spread awareness and information about testing.
Jasina will share her findings with fellow members of her youth group at St. Helena’s Roman Catholic Church in Edison. In working toward the Gold Award, she also organized friends from the youth group to make dozens of colorful fleece blankets for young AIDS patients.
Marone says she’s delighted with this first collaboration with the Girl Scouts, and would be amenable to doing it again.
“Young people think they are invincible, that ‘it can’t happen to me.’ But it does. We want to focus on how you can prevent this disease, and Jaimie was very enthusiastic about bringing that message to her high school and youth group,” Marone says.
In addition to the scouts, the Rutgers AIDS program collaborates with other organizations in the wider community, including faith-based and charitable groups such as Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick and the Samaritan Homeless Interim Program in Somerville.
It also helps train first- and second-year medical students, and works with student interns from Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.