Americans ages 13 to 24 make up more than a quarter of new HIV infections each year
The numbers are disturbing: A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vital Signs report found young Americans ages 13 to 24 make up more than a quarter (that’s 1 in 4 for those doing the math) of new HIV infections each year. Every month, 1,000 youth are becoming infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. A whopping 60 percent don’t know they are infected. The majority, 83 percent, of these new infections is among males, with African Americans and gay and bisexual men being hardest hit. The cost of care for the young and newly infected is approximately $400,000 over a lifetime.
“Despite the great treatment we have, HIV remains an incurable infection,” says Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., director of the CDC. “Given everything we know about HIV and everything we know about how to prevent it, it’s unacceptable that young people are getting infected from an entirely preventable disease.”
What’s leading to this epidemic within the epidemic? A toxic brew of stigma, homophobia, lack of access to health care, risky behaviors and too few young people being tested for HIV—and therefore not knowing their status, the experts say.
“Young men who have sex with men were more likely to have four or more sexual partners,” explains Kevin Fenton, M.D., former director, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Prevention. “High rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in many African-American and gay communities increases the risk of being infected with every sexual encounter. HIV-infected people younger than 25 are significantly less likely to get and stay in care.”
Seventy-five percent of young people in the study say they weren’t taught about HIV or AIDS in school.
“If we’re going to see a generation free from AIDS, we’re going to have to intensify education,” Dr. Frieden says. That means “expanding access to testing, both in the health-care setting and in the community. It requires all of us to do our part. Young people need to get educated and get tested. Parents need to talk to their kids early and often about sexual health and staying safe. Health-care providers should test people 13 and older and provide tailored prevention.”
And, he says, all Americans need to talk about this issue.
The CDC’s plan to combat this news is multi-pronged.
Improving the treatment cascade is critical. This would lead to fewer people out there who have uncontrolled infection and more HIV-positive people in care with their viral load suppressed.
Educate the at-risk population to reduce risky behaviors, including multiple partners, illicit drug use, alcohol abuse and eschewing condoms.
Making sure everyone knows his or her status. This means getting tested for HIV is key. Currently, just 13 percent of high school students have been tested. For 18- to 24-year-olds, the testing statistic increases, but only to 35 percent.
“We have to focus on where the epidemic is and hit harder there. If we can knock risky behavior down by even 10 or 20 percent,” Dr. Frieden says, we’ll be on our way to an AIDS-free generation.