Risky sexual behavior and a lack of testing and education are leaving younger people vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, experts say.
According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 percent of HIV patients are ages 13 to 24. Rates are highest among young gay and bisexual men and among young African-Americans. Rates are higher for men than women among all races. HIV rates are higher in the Northeast and the Southeast than in the Midwest and West.
"Most — 60 percent — of the young people don't know they're infected, so they're passing it on," said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention.
Despite recommendations by the CDC, said Mermin, HIV testing of teens is low.
"Only 13 percent of high school students have been tested," he said. "So they're not all getting the information they need at an age when they're starting to be sexually active."
One group — young gay men — is particularly hard-hit by the trend, according to the report, because they are more likely to have multiple sex partners or use drugs or alcohol before having sex and less likely to use condoms. They are also less likely to say they have had AIDS/HIV education in school.
"Gay youth are so vulnerable because they often feel like they have no one to talk to," said David Ernesto Munar, president and CEO of AIDS Foundation of Chicago. "They rely on peers for information, and their peers aren't necessarily giving them the right information."
Sex education varies from school to school, added Munar. "You may have just a few hours or you may have a more extensive program," he said. "Or you may have a lesson that just focuses on abstinence, which is just one solution and not always realistic."
Add poverty, high dropout rates and unemployment, said Munar, and you have more teens selling sex to pay for food or housing.
"These kids need positive adult role models who can be their allies," he said. "Their parents are not always equipped to help, so it's up to the community."
The good news: Local programs such as the AIDS Foundation of Chicago's "Change My Story" and the national MPowerment Project are directing their messages to young gay and bisexual men. Part of MPowerment's mission, for example, is to teach them that unprotected anal intercourse carries the highest risk of HIV transmission. Although these programs don't reach all youth, they are making a difference, according to the CDC report.
The recent "HIV Behavioral Surveillance Report" from the Chicago Department of Public Health says awareness and treatment of HIV status among young gay men in Chicago has risen significantly since 2008.
Although the number of HIV cases grows annually — about 50,000 new cases a year since the mid-1990s — its growth is down from the peak of about 130,000 new cases a year in the 1980s.
"It's ironic," said Munar. "Testing is so accurate now. You have the results in minutes. And treatment has come a long way. A young person with HIV who gets treated can live another 40 or more years. But we still have to overcome stigmas and complacency."
In addition to saving lives, said Mermin, HIV testing and treatment should be viewed as a national public health priority. "We'd like to see HIV testing as routine as cholesterol tests," he said. "In the end, it saves us all money to make sure these young people get help."
For testing locations, call 800-CDC-INFO or visit HIVtest.cdc.gov.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun