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Fear Makes HIV-Infected Parent Limit Affection

Unfounded Worry About Transmitting Disease May Affect Child Development
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WebMD Health News

Feb. 8, 2005 -- HIV-infected parents steer clear of hugging or kissing their children out of fear of infecting them, a new study shows.

It's a sad message: Even when children are not HIV-infected, the disease greatly affects them because of parents' fears, writes researcher Mark A. Schuster, MD, PhD, with the department of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Doctors need to give patients straightforward reassurance that their fears -- although understandable -- are unfounded," he writes.

Schuster's study appears in the latest issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

Because HIV-infected people can transmit the virus and because they may be susceptible to infections, fear may affect parent-child interactions, writes Schuster. One recent study showed that many adults continue to believe that HIV can be transmitted through casual contact such as kissing, sharing a drinking glass, and touching a toilet seat.

While parents may be trying to protect their kids, withholding affection may hurt the child's development, he writes. His study examined just how much these fears affected parents' interactions with their children.

Survey Shows Fearful Parents

He and his colleagues conducted in-person interviews with 344 parents receiving HIV care at various U.S. clinics. Each was asked questions like this: How well-informed do you think you are about AIDS and HIV? How much do you fear that your children will transmit an infection to you? Does that fear keep you from hugging, kissing, or cuddling your child? Does it keep you from sharing utensils? How much do you fear transmitting HIV or AIDS to your child?

The survey showed:

  • 36% reported at least "a little" fear of transmitting HIV to their children
  • 42% reported "a little" fear of catching an infection from their child.
  • 28% avoided certain interactions with their children "a little" because of these fears.
  • 25% of parents held back affection because of fear of transmitting HIV.
  • 19% held back affection a lot for fear of catching an infection.

Hispanic parents were substantially more likely to be fearful than other parents about withholding affection. Studies have shown that some Hispanics misunderstand the risk from casual contact.

Fathers were more fearful than mothers about transmitted HIV, he notes.

Better education is the key, writes Schuster. There's evidence that better-informed parents are less fearful.

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