Shocking statistics regarding HIV infections among America's youth

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
HIV, AIDS, American youth, gay men, bisexual men, black men, teens
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According to a new study, more than half of young people in the United States who are infected with HIV are unaware of it. The report, which was released on November 27, was compiled by researchers Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Sadly, young people ages 13 to 24 account for 26% of all new HIV infections. “Given everything we know about HIV and how to prevent it in 30 years of fighting the disease, it’s just unacceptable that young people are becoming infected at such high rates,” noted CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden on a conference call with reporters. He added that every month, 1,000 young people in America become infected with HIV, an incurable infection that costs $400,000 to treat over a lifetime. If left untreated, HIV infection leads to AIDS and early death. In 2010, 72 percent of the estimated 12,000 new HIV infections in young people occurred in young men who have sex with men, and nearly half of new infections were among young, black males.

“The data are stark and worrying,” Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the CDC, said in a telephone interview. He added, “We are particularly concerned about what is happening with HIV among young black gay and bisexual men. They account for 39% of all new infections among youth and more than half of new infections among young men who have sex with men.”

According to Dr. Fenton, the proportion of young people infected with HIV has remained relatively stable during the last few years; however, infection rates appear to be increasing in these populations. Furthermore, because many of the newly infected gay or bisexual males are just beginning to explore their sexuality, stigma and homophobia are making HIV testing and treatment far more challenging. Dr. Frieden noted that although the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend routine screening for HIV starting in the early teens, “too few young people are getting tested.” He explained that only 13% of all high school students and only 22% of sexually active high school students have ever been tested for HIV, the CDC found.

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The statistics for young adults aged 18 to 24 are not much better, with only 35% of individuals in this age group reporting ever having been tested for HIV. Dr. Frieden explained that one reason for the higher rates of infection among young gay and bisexual men of all races was a higher rate of risky behaviors compared with their heterosexual peers.

According to the report, a large analysis of risk behaviors among high school students revealed that gay and bisexual males are much more likely to have multiple sex partners, to inject illegal drugs and to use alcohol or drugs before sex. Furthermore, they are much less likely to use condoms. Because so few get tested, HIV-infected individuals under age 25 are significantly less likely than those who are older to either seek treatment or remain in treatment. Thus, they are much less likely to have their virus controlled at a level that helps them stay healthy and reduce their risk of transmitting HIV to partners.

The CDC also discovered that many young men who have sex with men are less likely than others to have been taught about HIV or AIDS in school. “We have to correct a lot of myths and misconceptions,” noted Dr. Frieden. He added, “It is astonishing the level of ignorance about basic physiology that may high school and middle school students have.”

To address some of the issues, the CDC is funding a program that targets both at-risk youths and the homophobia and stigma in the community that drives them underground. Last September, Georgia, a state where new HIV infections among those 13 to 24 years old exceed the national average (accounting for as many as one-third of all new HIV infections) won a grant as part of a pilot project to find better ways of targeting these at-risk youth.

Reference: CDC

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