The sleepover is one of the most memorable parts of childhood bonding with friends, sharing that delicious feeling of defying the rules and bed times. But Ashley Murphy’s first sleepover at age seven was a rude awakening to a world that feared her. A friend’s mother demanded Ashley be excluded.
Ashley was born with AIDS.
Now 16, Ashley is one of the more than two million youth worldwide between 10 and 19 who are living with HIV. Although the global rate of infection among youth is declining, that’s not the case at home.
Statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada show Canadian youth HIV infections have been slowly rising since 1999. The prime culprit is risky sexual behaviour resulting largely from ignorance about HIV and AIDS. What’s more, young people like Ashley who live with HIV and AIDS still find themselves facing stigma because of the myths and misinformation surrounding this illness.
More than a decade after basketball star Magic Johnson breached the cone of silence about HIV, Ashley shares her story to continue breaking down barriers, and remind Canadians that HIV and AIDS are still very much with us.
More than 200 Canadian infants are born every year to HIV-positive mothers. One-quarter contract the virus from birth.
Ashley fell ill at just two months old. Barely able to suck in a breath, she was rushed to hospital where doctors found pneumonia throughout her lungs. Blood tests revealed a terrifyingly high viral load of one million HIV cells in just one millilitre of blood. Baby Ashley wasn’t just HIV-positive, she had full-blown AIDS.
She spent the next six months on a respirator.
Released from hospital, she was placed in the care of a foster family because of her mother’s ongoing drug problems. Doctors didn’t expect her to outlive her ninth month.
Ashley had other ideas. “I weighed three pounds, ten ounces, but three pounds of that was attitude.”
She clung stubbornly to life. By age five, she still weighed only 23 pounds. Doctors inserted a feeding tube directly into her stomach to help her eat and take the six different medications she was on at the time. The tube didn’t come out until she was nine.
And while the virus assaulted from within, Ashley was assailed by ignorance from without.
The host parents of that first slumber party fortunately refused to exclude Ashley. However, over the years, other friends’ parents have ordered them not to share drinks with her, or have given her disposable cups and utensils, out of ignorance about how HIV spreads.
Ashley believes these problems arise because HIV and AIDS have dropped off the education radar. She hears from many youth who say the disease gets little discussion in their school health classes. Others also tell her about textbooks and teachers imparting misinformation. She’s heard of youth who have had to change schools and neighbourhoods because of bullying.
Attention to HIV and AIDS is waning outside the classroom, as well. This summer, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised more than $100 million for ALS research. But the only thing viral about the fight against HIV and AIDS today is the virus, itself. A 2012 study by U.S.-based Funders Concerned About AIDS found that, throughout the world, philanthropic giving to HIV and AIDS-related causes is “flatlining.”
Today, Ashley is a healthy, vivacious teen who is thriving in high school.
Thanks to treatments, the virus has diminished to nearly undetectable levels in her body. But much greater awareness and education is still needed if we want to wipe out HIV and AIDS in our world, indeed in this country.
Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes Free The Children, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.
CRAIG AND MARC KIELBURGER, SPECIAL TO QMI AGENCY