HIV and AIDS were top headlines in the 1980s and 90s, but with the advent of new drugs they have become less prevalent in the news. But the crisis of HIV and AIDS is far from over. In fact, thousands of people every year are infected each year and it is believed that approximately 61,000 youth are living with this in the United States. (https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/age/youth/index.html)
In fact, in 2015 almost 9,000 youth were diagnosed with HIV. Most of those were age 20-24, but because HIV can be latent for long periods of time it is likely that many of those became infected as teens.
The group that has the highest risk of developing HIV is gay or bisexual males who make up about 80% of new diagnoses. And when you break that number down, more than half are black males with Hispanic men in the next highest group.
What Puts Teens At Risk
There was once a time that HIV prevention and education was a high priority in the United States, but in modern times there is less of a focus on this virus. In fact, fewer than half of high schools have sex education that teaches students how to avoid HIV infection.
There are several other risk factors that put teens in a vulnerable position. First, teens are tested at very low rates. That means that people have been infected, but are unaware that they have the virus. They can continue to engage in behaviors that spread the virus.
Substance use and HIV transmission also go hand in hand. Teens who drink alcohol and use drugs along with sexual activity are at a higher risk of becoming infected. Teens are also less likely than adults to use condoms.
Stigma and HIV
There is a lot of stigma surrounding HIV and that can make it difficult for teens to talk about their own HIV status and prevent them from seeking testing and treatment. Young people also generally may have a tougher time discussing issues around sex and protection.
For teens who are gay and bisexual stigma from homophobia makes things even more difficult. Feelings of isolation can increase a teen’s risk of substance abuse and engaging in risky sexual behaviors.
Gay teens are more likely to be victims of violence and bullying. This can lead to mental health problems such as trauma and depression. Again, putting them at higher risk of engaging in risky behaviors.
The Outlook for Teens
One of the toughest problems facing teens is the lack of diagnosis. Many teens are living with HIV and don’t know they have it. And even more frustrating is that teens who are diagnosed are less likely to get care within a month of diagnosis. With this virus quick treatment is essential to managing the virus and preventing disease.
And while we don’t often think about people dying from AIDS anymore, there are still many who do. In 2014, 117 youth ages 15-24 died from HIV related illness. Many of these deaths could have been prevented with education, screening, and quick treatment.