Allison jerks her hand out of the sink, wincing in pain. She's gotten a nasty cut from a kitchen knife, and the blood is already starting to drip from her sliced finger. As she grabs a towel to wrap around her hand, her daughter comes bounding into the kitchen.
'No!' shouts a frantic Allison, who is HIV-positive. 'Keep away!'
Although a bit dramatic, this scenario reflects one of the biggest fears of HIV-positive parents, according to a survey of families affected by HIV. It showed at least one family member in two thirds of families with an HIV-positive parent is worried about potentially spreading HIV in the home.
'The parents had two main concerns: one was contracting an infection from a sick child, but the biggest one was about transmitting the virus to their kids through blood from cuts and scrapes,' says lead study author Burt Cowgill of the University of California, Los Angeles/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion.
While both of these fears are real and justified, additional worries reported by the study subjects were what Cowgill calls 'misconceptions.'
'Some of the parents would say things like 'Although I know it's not a mode of transmission, I still feel better if my kids don't eat or drink after me,' ' he says. 'These are people who know a lot about HIV transmission, but that parental urge to protect one's children sometimes overrode their knowledge.'
Even Tanya Torres, a longtime educator and an ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, sometimes gets a twinge of discomfort when her HIV-negative 4-year-old son drinks from her glass or uses her eating utensils'despite knowing it's not a risk.
'I'm not real relaxed about it, but I'm not freaked either,' admits Torres, 25, who has always known life with HIV, since she was infected during a blood transfusion at birth. 'But I don't make it a big deal because I don't want him feeling like there's something wrong with him. And I don't worry too much about passing HIV on to him because I've done so much education to know what's risky and what's not.'
That education'for both parents and their kids'is the key to overcoming unfounded transmission fears in the home, according to Cowgill. 'We recommend that pediatricians tell kids not only how HIV is transmitted but more importantly how HIV is not transmitted,' he says. 'For example, sometimes the kids need to be directly told that it's OK to hug and kiss Mommy and Daddy. And the parents may need to be reminded of that too.'
For now, Torres has simply told her son that Mommy sometimes feels sick, and she's instructed him in general infection precautions, like never touching anyone's cuts, sores, or blood.
'I do plan to talk with him in more detail someday, but right now I don't want to give him more than he needs,' she explains. 'As parents, we do need to explain this to our kids, but we also need to tell them, 'Hug us, kiss us, love us. We can play on the playground with you. We can go see a movie with you and do everything else HIV-negative parents can do.' '