Utahns Saturday were challenged to open their hearts and homes to those described as America's most unadoptable orphans - children infected with the AIDS virus.

These children are running up hospital bills of more than $90,000 each, often because they simply have nowhere else to go.And the problem is worsening. The number of pediatric AIDS patients in America has increased from 400 to 1,200 in the past two years, said Richard Starley, executive director of AIDS Project Utah.

Starley was one of several speakers Saturday at a conference on "Adoption and Infertility Issues" at Snowbird.

The conference, sponsored by Resolve of Utah and the Utah Adoption Council, coincides with AIDS Awareness Month.

According to Starley, the majority of children diagnosed with AIDS are under 5, black or Hispanic. Eighty percent come from families where at least one parent has AIDS or is at risk of developing it. In many cases, their mothers are intravenous drug abusers. Many are unable to care for their children and leave them in the hospital.

Yet Starley said a significant number of babies who test positive aren't infected but carry AIDS antibodies they inherited from their mothers. AIDS antibodies fade from uninfected babies' bloodstreams by age 6 months to 15 months.

All AIDS tests in current use detect antibodies to the virus, rather than the virus itself.

Even youngsters who really are sick often are kept in the hospital when they could be treated on an out-patient basis.

Starley said caring for an AIDS baby is a tremendous reponsibility.

Most, he said, fail to thrive, are often difficult to placate and cry constantly.

Potential foster families often fear they might catch AIDS - a remote possibility - and insurance and Medicaid policies are set up to reimburse hospital care more efficiently than for outpatient care.

"It's a big responsibility for a family to take a child infected with the AIDS virus out of the hospital," Starley said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control reports that as of Sept. 26 672 of the nearly 1,200 American children with AIDS had died.

"But the child might live," Starley said. "Even if he doesn't, they (foster parents) can take comfort in knowing the child received loving care during his lifetime."