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School Policy Could Bar Athletes With H.I.V.


Reviving a dormant health controversy, a northern Colorado school district has adopted a health policy that could bar students with H.I.V. infection or AIDS from playing school sports.

In the Poudre School District, which has about 22,000 students and is centered on Fort Collins, an infected student "may be excluded from participation in school athletics," the policy states, depending on the decision of an assessment team of school administrators, public health officials and the student's parents.

Professional and amateur athletic groups have generally taken the opposite approach since 1991, the year that the basketball player Earvin (Magic) Johnson announced that he was infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. Instead of banning athletes with blood-borne diseases, like AIDS and hepatitis, athletic associations have almost universally adopted sanitary procedures for handling open wounds and spilled blood.

"National Hockey League players with active bleeding are taken off the ice until bleeding stops, the same thing for basketball players," said Benjamin Young, an infectious-disease specialist in Denver. Noting that Mr. Johnson played basketball after he announced his infection, Dr. Young said, "Professional sports elected not to make this a big issue."

"To my knowledge," he said, "there is no known case of H.I.V. transmission through sports."

Researchers have ruled out sweat and saliva as agents of transmission, he added, and "in the millions of household contacts, there has been no transmission."

Monte Peterson, a Poudre Valley School District official, said the new policy, adopted on Monday, was "intended to be a cooperative policy, not a restrictive, exclusionary policy."

It refers to "students infected with a serious communicable disease, including a diagnosis of an H.I.V. or AIDS-related illness." Colorado law does not compel students to disclose whether they have H.I.V. infection.

"If a parent chose to share with us that a student was infected with, say, H.I.V., how can we help?" he said from Fort Collins, 55 miles north of here. "We are not dealing with a case. Our policy is a proactive policy."

Only 26 AIDS cases have been recorded among Coloradans of high school age since 1982, the state health department said. Last year the department reported no new AIDS cases and five new cases of H.I.V. infection among state residents of high school age.

On the national level, there are not believed to be any school districts with policies intended to exclude H.I.V.-infected athletes, said Jerry L. Diehl, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, a sport regulatory group in Kansas City, Mo.

"While risk of one athlete infecting another with H.I.V./AIDS during competition is close to nonexistent, there is a remote risk that other blood-borne infectious diseases can be transmitted," begins the association's policy, written in 1995.

Noting the threat of Hepatitis B transmission, it lists sanitary procedures for when open wounds are incurred on playing fields. Doctors say the main route for transmission would be from the open wound of an infected player to the open wound of another player.

In Colorado, high school teams forfeit games if they refuse to play teams that have members who have H.I.V. infection or hepatitis, said Bob Ottewill, commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association.

Dr. Young criticized the Poudre schools for not specifying whether the new policy applied to noncontact sports. He added that exclusionary programs were ineffective because the presence of H.I.V. in the bloodstream could manifest itself up to one year after an infectious contact.

Civil libertarians and gay rights advocates said today that the new policy smacked of discrimination.

"We think this policy is uninformed, discriminatory and fraught with ignorance." said Lori Midson, a spokeswoman for the Colorado AIDS Project, an education and prevention group in Denver. "This means that students that are athletes and H.I.V. positive will be discouraged from revealing their H.I.V. status."

Christine Cimini, an lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said: "The danger of this policy is that you are going to discourage students from being tested. And the consequences of not being tested are incredibly severe."


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Information in this article was accurate in January 16, 1999. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.