July 26, 2012
As we work to turn the tide on HIV, we can almost imagine a day without AIDS -- but it will be impossible to achieve if young people are not central to our work.
People under the age of 30 represent approximately four of every 10 new HIV infections each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But nowhere is the epidemic more virulent and voracious than in young Black men who have sex with men (MSM), among whom the number of HIV infections increased 48 percent from 2006 through 2009.
This growth has been exacerbated by the failure to provide adequate information to young people about their sexual health. Many of them are unable to obtain information about safe sex or sexually transmitted diseases as a result of the failure of state and local boards of education to provide funds for sex education.
"We should be ashamed of this failure to protect young people from the epidemic of HIV/AIDS," said Phill Wilson, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. "We need massive investments in community education, in HIV science and treatment literacy programs and in peer patient navigation services that link individuals to the care they need -- and we need to act on our convictions."
Adequately preparing young people to face the challenges of HIV/AIDS in their lives is critical to reducing this toll and achieving the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which calls for educating all young people on HIV, as well as intensified prevention for populations at greater risk, including Black youth.
So we must act to increase access to sex education, with appropriate lessons on sexual health. We also must insist that public schools teach students about safe sex, and proactively provide access to condoms and all appropriate forms of prevention and treatment.
We also need to introduce HIV/AIDS testing to teenagers, reminding them to visit a primary care physician regularly and to ask to be tested for HIV. We must increase our focus on pregnant young women, to reduce the number of children born with HIV/AIDS, as well as their partners. And we must do more to help prevent mother-to-child transmission, which can occur during pregnancy, labor and delivery, or breastfeeding. Without treatment, around 15-30 percent of babies born to HIV-infected women will become infected with HIV during pregnancy and delivery. A further five-20 percent will become infected through breastfeeding.
It's essential that we support our community health organizations, which have the ability to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention among young people and to provide referrals for young people with HIV/AIDS to medical professionals for anti-retroviral treatments and other components of care.
But nothing is more important than working to improve access to better healthcare for young people by fully implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which will deliver health coverage to more than 30 million people who are currently uninsured, including mothers and families with children. In fact, Americans under 27 were among the very first beneficiaries of healthcare reform, becoming eligible to stay on their parents' health insurance plans until their 27th birthday, within the first year after Congress passed the legislation.
We have achieved reductions in the rate of infections among newborn children and older people. Now, it is our responsibility to take care of our future and to act on behalf of young people who need access to information, prevention, and treatment to rid HIV from our future generations once and for all.