Op-Ed: What’s Your HIV Risk? If You’re Under 24, Probably Higher Than You Think

The numbers of young people being infected is staggering, but there's a lot we can do about it, says the director of the government's Office of Adolescent Health.


In June 2012 the Centers for Disease Control launched a free HIV-testing program at drugstores like this one in New York City. More widespread testing would enable us to catch more cases of HIV before people pass the infection on to a partner(s). Do you know your HIV risk? (Getty Images/Mario Tama)

May 3, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Evelyn M. Kappeler is the Director of the HHS Office of Adolescent Health.

Over 50,000 new HIV infections occur annually and of those new HIV infections, one in four occur among young people ages 13-24. One in four! As a public health professional, and as a mother of two young people in this age group, this recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made me gasp. We have entered the fourth decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S., and know more about the disease and how to prevent and treat it than ever before and, yet, the December 2012 CDC report reveals:

• About 1,000 youth per month were infected with HIV in 2010.

• A disproportionate number of new HIV infections in youth (70 percent) occurred in gay and bisexual males, most of whom were African American.

• About 60 percent of youth with HIV did not know they were infected and could unknowingly pass HIV to others. And without treatment, they increased their chances of sickness and early death.

The statistics above can make the problem seem overwhelming, but there are actions we can all take to fight HIV in our own lives and in our communities.

Learn More About HIV: Understanding basic HIV information is important for everyone. Learn about how HIV is and is not transmitted, why testing is important, and about advances in HIV care and treatment. By becoming informed and sharing that information each of us can help make a difference. For example, did you know that while there is no cure for HIV infection, it can be managed to help people live healthier and longer lives? In fact, there's strong evidence that starting powerful HIV drugs early—before symptoms appear—greatly reduces the risk of developing acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS, the final stage of HIV infection), having AIDS-related complications, or dying of AIDS. But, since HIV infection does not usually cause symptoms at the early stage, people need to be tested to learn whether they are infected.

Get Tested: Knowing whether one is positive or negative for HIV confers great benefits in healthy decision making. Someone who tests negative can take steps to stay that way. Someone who tests positive can get linked to care and treatment which, in turn, benefits his/her own health and reduces the chances of passing HIV to someone else. HIV screening usually involves taking a blood sample (though there are also oral swab tests). The sample is tested to see whether it contains antibodies (disease-fighting proteins) that react specifically to HIV. These tests are very accurate. A well-respected, independent national panel recently recommended that everyone aged 15 to 65 should be screened for HIV infection at least once. People at increased risk should be tested more often. You may be at increased risk if you are a man and have sex with men, if you engage in unsafe sex, or if you use injection drugs. You can get an HIV test in your doctor’s office. In addition, many health departments, clinics and community-based organizations offer free, anonymous, rapid HIV testing. You can search for an HIV testing location near you at locator.aids.gov.

If Diagnosed with HIV, Get Treated, and Stay in Treatment: Getting yourself tested is the first step and serves as the pivotal entry point into the health care system for life-extending treatment and care. If you learn you are HIV-positive, locate care and treatment services near you. Linking to care and staying in treatment will help you learn about your own condition, understand what you need to do to help keep yourself well, and reduce the risk that you will transmit the infection to a partner. Many people now manage their HIV infection as a long-term, chronic disease. If you or someone you care about is HIV-positive this fact sheet can help you prepare for seeing a health care provider who is an HIV specialist.

Learn the Connection between HIV and STDs: While sexually transmitted diseases affect individuals of all ages, STDs take a particularly heavy toll on young people. CDC estimates that while they make up just over one-quarter of the sexually active population, youth ages 15 to 24 account for half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted infections that occur in the United States each year. What’s this have to do with HIV, you may ask? Well, having an untreated STD increases the risk of HIV transmission regardless of whether it is the HIV-positive partner or the HIV-negative partner who has the STD.

Ready to Prevent HIV in Your Community? The Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) and our federal partners want to help programs that serve young people, especially those most at risk for HIV infection, succeed and reach those who need information the most. The National Resource Center for HIV/AIDS Prevention among Adolescents addresses the specific needs of young people. This OAH-supported online source provides a central location for resources, professional literature, evidence-based programs and practices, and technical assistance. If your agency or organization is among the many across the country assessing what you can do new or differently to address the impact of HIV among youth, I hope you will visit the Resource Center. Keep up-to-date on HIV/AIDS awareness days and available campaign materials at PreventYouthHIV.org.

Wondering About Health Care Coverage? The landscape of HIV care and treatment will change when more people gain access to health care services as key parts of the Affordable Care Act take effect in the coming year. On October 1, 2013, your state’s Health Insurance Marketplace will open online and you will be able to learn about health plans you are eligible for and if you will receive a break on the cost. If you do not have health coverage, it is time to think about signing up. Read more about young adults and the Affordable Care Act.

What do you think would help lower the rate of HIV infection, particularly among young people?

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.