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"I didn't understand why'

They are the keepers of secrets, the more than 18,000 American women with AIDS. In some neighborhoods of New York City, up to a quarter of the women of childbearing age may be HIV-positive. In fact, women and their children are the fastest-growing segment of the HIV-positive population. They guard the secrets of their husbands' and lovers' drug addiction, or bisexuality. They guard the secret of their own disease. And those with HIV-positive children also zealously guard that secret. This year, AIDS is expected to become the fifth leading cause of death for all U.S. women of childbearing age.

The stigma of AIDS often crushes the spirit from families even before they actually become sick, making it impossible for them to ask loved ones for support. It is a disease of gays, junkies, people who brought it on themselves: That is what mothers and their children hear others say, and that is why AIDS becomes their terrible, overwhelming secret.

She is separated from her husband of 10 years and lives in Brooklyn with her 11-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

One of her brothers, lost to drugs, died a street-robbery victim, but he was the exception in a hardworking, close-knit family. She graduated from high school and attended LaGuardia Community College but left a few credits shy of graduation because she couldn't attend school, hold down a full-time job and care for an infant son as a single mother.

In July 1989, when her daughter was born, she applied for life insurance and, to her amazement, was rejected for unspecified "medical reasons." It took her physicians five letters and 10 months to learn, in June 1990, why she was uninsurable: She was HIV-positive.

"I just broke down and cried. And it scared me, because, when you first hear about this, you think, "Oh God, you're gonna die!'

"... And I didn't understand why. Because I was going through a divorce, and I didn't understand why, and a lot of things just happened to me in this one particular year, and I was just dumbfounded. "

At first, the 30-year-old woman was convinced that she had been infected by her husband, from whom she had separated a month prior to her testing positive. But he has tested negative several times, and she came to believe that a youthful relationship had caught up with her. She recalled that, of the handful of men she had ever had sex with, she had suspected one of using IV drugs and had immediately ended the relationship.

Both the woman and her daughter, who also tested positive, are still relatively healthy, but the woman's immune system is close to non-functioning.

"Women really have to be notified that, "Hey! It's not just one section of people or color of people, it's everybody, and it's scary."'