What Can Be Done to Reduce HIV Amongst Young People?

With World AIDS Day on the horizon (December 1st), wellness experts in the US are focusing on teens and young adults, as this subsection of the population accounts for a disproportionate number of HIV infections. This follows a recent report from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has found that very few young people are getting tested for HIV.


HIV affects the wellbeing of 13- to 24-year-olds each year, with people in this age bracket making up more than a quarter of new infections in the US. Moreover, over half of those who are infected have no idea that they are HIV-positive, and could be risking their own wellbeing as well as the sexual health of others. CDC director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden comments, ‘Given everything we know about HIV and how to prevent it after more than 30 years of fighting the disease, it is just unacceptable that young people are becoming infected at such high rates.’


The latest CDC analysis, which was published online as part of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, looked at data from a diverse population of youth using two key sources: the 2009 and 2011 Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance System for 9th to 12th grade students and the 2010 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) for young adults between ages 18 to 24. According to the report, there were about 12,200 new infection of HIV among this age group in 2010, and the highest rates were among bisexual and gay young men (72%) and African-Americans (57%).


Rates of HIV are most common in communities with low incomes, as they face lack of access to healthcare, stigma, discrimination and a prevalence of unrecognized and untreated infections. Frieden notes, ‘As we work to drive down new HIV infections in all populations, we have to give particular attention to the next generation, especially African Americans and gay and bisexual young men. Every young person should know how to protect themselves from HIV and should be empowered to do so.’ Since young people often do not seek health care on a regular basis, the CDC is pushing for more widespread testing and education about the virus both in healthcare settings and in communities.


However, the Kaiser Family Foundation recently released a survey that shows greater awareness of HIV, particularly among higher risk populations. In a group of 1,437 youth ages 15 to 24, African American young adults were three times more likely to cite HIV and AIDS as issues of personal concern than their white counterparts, and Latino youth were twice as likely. Tina Hoff, senior vice president and director of health communication and media partnerships at Kaiser Family Foundation, explains, ‘We saw striking differences, most notably among race. This is a generation that has never known a time without AIDS and may see the end of it. I think there is a lot of hope for this generation. They are motivated to respond and ready to be active about it.’


In both reports, stigma is cited as one of the key culprits behind young adults being kept in the dark about their status, although such discrimination isn’t as prominent as it once was. The Kaiser survey noted that one in three young people say there is still “a lot” of stigma around HIV/AIDS in the US, while 52% assert there is still “some.” So what can be done to battle the stigma associated with HIV? Frieden says, ‘All Americans can talk honestly and open about HIV to help combat the stigma and fear that keep people from seeking prevention and treatment. Dramatically reducing HIV among young people is going to require that all of us do our part.’

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