How much do the young people in your life know about practicing safe sex? That’s an important question to ask yourself, because according to the CDC, youth ages 13 to 24 have become a large number of the recent positive HIV diagnoses in the United States.
In 2017, it was found that they were 21 percent of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses, and sadly, they were the least likely of all age groups to receive the care they need to keep their HIV under control. Experts say this may have a lot to do with whether or not our young people are receiving the type of modern sexual health education they need.
“Our youth are not provided access to comprehensive, age-appropriate, destigmatizing sexual health education that is used to provide them with the knowledge and skills to reduce risk behaviors that lead to HIV, STIs, and unintended pregnancy before they start sexual activity,” says Oscar Alleyne, DrPH, MPH. Dr. Alleyne is Chief of Programs and Services for The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).
“Many sex education programs are not all-inclusive and do not discuss all risks and take into consideration gender and sexual orientation,” he added. “Only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and just 22 states mandate both sex education and HIV education. This lack of sex education and awareness contributes to the increase in HIV cases among youth that we see today.”
As for why this group is least likely to know their status, experts have a few ideas. It’s believed that possible stigma received from health professionals, not being comfortable talking to providers about their sexual health in front of a parent or guardian, and not being able to obtain certain services without the consent or knowledge of a parent, due to insurance, are hindrances.
It’s also possible that the youth just don’t believe that they could end up HIV positive, so certain sexual health information important to them isn’t sought out. With that in mind, Dr. Alleyne says it’s important that they’re met where they are, including online. While there are barriers young people run into that can keep them from getting sexual health services, including poverty, transportation, mental health issues and food insecurities, young people tend to have access to many forms of media.
“To eliminate these barriers, we should use every resource available to us to reach young people and raise awareness about their risks, safer sex, testing, and linkage to care,” he said. “That should include all forms of available media—including social media and engaging ‘influencers’ or other media personalities to bring attention to HIV and sexual health. Using platforms that are most frequented by youth can be great in engaging them to get tested and spread the word about HIV. Local health departments can also partner with school districts and youth-serving agencies to create culturally and sexually competent environments for youth to seek sexual health services.”
Those young people who do want more information but don’t know where to start are encouraged to check out the National Coalition for Sexual Health’s (NCSH) Five Action Steps to Good Sexual Health. It aids them in having the tough but necessary conversations with their partners and their doctors.
Dr. Alleyne also notes the importance of even allowing HIV testing in schools through unique means. For example, he pointed out that in Omaha, Nebraska and Berkeley, California, school-based STI service programs have been put in place. In Detroit, there are STI testing days where students have the option to offer a urine sample to check on their sexual health. If more common, it could certainly make a difference.
“This reduces stigma, while also allowing for young people to access the services they need and make this type of healthcare more mainstream,” he said. “Schools are another essential gateway to access huge groups of young people, and we should make that a place where they can access education and testing, and potentially even treatment. Not only should we provide testing but, school-based or school-linked health centers are critical to increasing access to care for youth. I also believe that there should be testing in other places where young people frequent—libraries, recreation centers, malls, etc.—and this should include testing for HIV as well as other STIs.”
Overall though, it’s important that young people make an effort to know their HIV status and not wait for symptoms to strike. If one finds out that they have the virus and receive necessary treatment that allows the HIV in their blood to be undetectable, there is almost no chance of it being passed on to a sexual partner.
If you do test negative, you should still take precautions to keep your status negative for the long term. Options include taking PrEP, a daily pill that helps to prevent HIV. In addition to that, using condoms or other forms of protection against STIs is crucial. But most importantly, experts like Dr. Alleyne say it’s necessary for people to become more comfortable talking about sex and getting tested with partners. The sooner we all know the status of our sexual health, the quicker the numbers can be reduced for 13 to 24 year olds, Black men and women and everyone in general when it comes to having a positive HIV diagnosis.