CDC Reports Troubling Rise in HIV Infections Among Young People

World AIDS Day in 2011.

World AIDS Day, 2011. (Associated Press)

November 27, 2012

Every month, 1,000 young Americans become infected with HIV.

Young people aged 13 to 24 made up about 26 percent of all new diagnoses in 2010, even as other demographics have remained relatively stable, according to new information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC data, released today, raises new questions about how to prevent young people from contracting a disease that global advocates have been hoping they might be able to stop.

For the first time in history, the U.N. has said that there’s a chance to eradicate the disease, but only if new infections can be curbed. In its annual report on the global AIDS problem, the U.N. said that there were slightly fewer (pdf) infections worldwide in 2011, 2.5 million compared to 2.6 million the year before, part of a decline since 2001.

“Given everything we know about HIV and how to prevent it, after more than 30 years of fighting the disease, it’s just unacceptable that young people are getting infected at such high rates,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC’s director, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

At one time, most kids who had HIV/AIDS in the U.S. were born with it. Now, after a major push to test and treat pregnant women, most mother-to-child transmissions can be blocked.

Most young people diagnosed with HIV today contract the disease through sex. For most young men, it’s through sex with other men. But the overwhelming majority of young women — 86 percent — contract the disease from heterosexual sex.

A little more than 60 percent of black and Latino youth aged 15 to 24 — whose communities have been disproportionately affected by the disease —  and 32 percent of white young people, said that HIV/AIDS is a “very serious issue” for their generation, according to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which also came out today.

But most still aren’t getting tested.

Even though the CDC has recommended that young people be tested regularly for HIV, only 13 percent of high-school students have ever been tested, it found, although that number is slightly higher among sexually active teens. (We’ve looked at some of the reasons testing rates remain low here.)

Also troubling: the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS remains strong among young people, with more than 60 percent saying they would be “uncomfortable” with an HIV-positive roommate, or even having food prepared by someone who is infected, the Kaiser study found. Eighty-six percent said they would be “uncomfortable” being in a relationship with an HIV-positive person. (See the full survey and more on its methodology here.)

What does the new data mean for the war on AIDS?

Despite the publicity surrounding global efforts to raise awareness about the disease, like World AIDS Day, on Dec. 1, most young people surveyed said they “rarely” or “never” saw or read coverage about HIV in the past year, although a majority reported learning about the disease in school. Young gay or bisexual minority men, the group most likely to become infected, were the least likely to say they had received sex education in school.

The CDC didn’t announce new initiatives today, but last year, the department awarded $55 million over five years to 34 community-based groups to expand HIV prevention services for young gay, bisexual and transgender men of color.

CDC officials acknowledged a need for more and improved HIV prevention education for teens, including how to delay sex, how to protect themselves if they do engage in sexual activity, and how to ensure kids get tested regularly for HIV and, if they test positive, get into care.

But what’s taught in school sex-education programs is often decided on the local level. As we reported in ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America, most states teach only abstinence for HIV prevention, which leaves little for the roughly 50 percent of high school kids that the CDC estimates are already sexually active.

Young people “know they need to be talking about condoms,” Patrick Packer, then the executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition, told FRONTLINE in the film. “But the leaders on school boards, the leaders in their community are putting up barriers for them to have frank and honest discussions about information that’s going to keep them safe.”

In the above excerpt from ENDGAME, we meet Marvelyn Brown, a young woman who was a typical “All-American teenager” who knew little about HIV/AIDS, until she met a man she thought was her Prince Charming. “Ignorance makes you more susceptible to the virus,” she says.

Watch the full film and find more of our coverage on HIV/AIDS here.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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