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Melissa Milne told her third-grade classmates in California Friday she is infected with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. On Tuesday she joined other HIV-AIDS children at the Capitol to appeal for the nation's help and understanding.

"For a long time people have been ignoring the needs of children," said Melissa's mother, Joan Milne, a computer systems analyst from Walnut Creek, Calif. She said she was ending 4 1/2 years of secrecy about her daughter's illness because "we just have to get over this stigma."Sponsors of the First National Children With HIV-AIDS Awareness Day said infected children from 24 states were in Washington for the event, which included appearances by pop singer Tiffany, Alfonso Ribeiro of the TV show "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

It was held in conjunction with National Pediatric Aids Week, authorized by Congress to educate people about human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and AIDS in children.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says about 3,000 cases of pediatric AIDS have been reported in the United States, with 84 percent of those born infected. Most of the others came down with the HIV virus as a result of tainted blood transfusions.

The 3,000 figure is "grotesquely underestimated," said Carol Dipaolo of Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the organizers. Many cases are never reported or concealed by parents she said, "but we are tired of living in secrecy."

Dipaolo said she was inspired by her 11-year-old son Joey, who contracted the virus during heart surgery in 1984. Joey said he was watching a TV show about homosexuals with AIDS and told his mother "we should go and show President Bush that kids have AIDS too."

Melissa said she told her class she was an HIV carrier on her last day of school Friday. "They hugged and kissed me," she said.

Melissa was infected by a blood transfusion she received as a baby, but, like many HIV carriers who do not show the serious symptoms that mark the onset of AIDS, she is still in good health.

She said she enjoyed a tour of the White House and the AIDS show, but she was "just hot and sweaty."

Also appearing on the Mall in front of the Capitol Building were Tina Yothers of "Family Ties," Rain Pryor of "Head of the Class," Charnele Brown of "A Different World" and Jason Hervey of "The Wonder Years."

Jackson told the children "you must not surrender, you must keep hope alive" and proclaimed that the nation's greatness will be judged not by its Patriot missiles and the size of its army but "by how it treats children in the dawn of life."