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Twenty years ago, it was difficult to avoid information about HIV and AIDS as it was making headlines as a deadly disease passed through sexual activity and shared needle drug use. Today, in many parts of the country young people may only hear about HIV briefly in a school education class or occasional discussion with their parents or doctor. Though many new and easier ways to prevent and to treat HIV infection have been identified, there is still NO cure for HIV. A person with HIV infection still lives with a chronic disease that requires ongoing medication and medical care in order to stay healthy. It is important for everyone to know that HIV still exists and is continuing to infect young people.
A recent article in the New York Times describes the continuing, devastating infection rates of HIV among young African American men who have sex with men in the Southern United States. Though HIV disproportionately affects this young population, it is a virus that does not discriminate. Once HIV is present it can spread among sexual and needle sharing networks if its presence is not recognized. In Wisconsin, the yearly rate of new infections has stayed the same (~220). However, in the past few years the rate of new infections among youth under age 30 has continued to increase.
Though the numbers are relatively small, without attention to diagnosing and preventing new infections, these numbers will increase. One of the best ways to prevent new infections is for an HIV-positive person to know their status. He or she can then take steps to improve their own health and reduce to the risk to sexual or needle sharing partners. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 15% of infected people of all ages do not know their status. However, when considering youth under age 25, the estimate is that more than half do not know they are HIV infected. Someone with HIV can feel strong and healthy for up to ten years, but continue to spread HIV if they do not know they are infected and are not treated.
The CDC recommends that everyone age 13 to 64 be tested for HIV at least once, especially in areas with moderate to high rates of HIV. Those who are at higher risk (such as male to male sexual contact) should be tested yearly. Though some people are more at risk than others and live in communities with higher rates of HIV infection, there are many who are sexually active and positive but do not consider themselves at risk. By making a broad recommendation for testing, it is hoped that the stigma that still surrounds HIV can be reduced, and more infections can be identified.
National HIV Testing Day is June 27, 2017 with the theme, "Test Your Way. Do It Today," #HIVTestingDay. Facts about HIV and HIV testing from the CDC can be found here and here. Though this is one day for awareness, testing can be done any time. Confidential conversations should be ongoing. between youth and their parents, medical providers and other trusted adults about the risks for HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, and blood borne infections such as Hepatitis C. Youth seeking testing can talk with their medical provider or can request testing at sites such as Planned Parenthood. To locate HIV resources in Wisconsin, call 1-800-334-2437 or visit the web at https://viventhealth.org/prevention-testing.