Fact Sheet: HIV/AIDS and Young People
In the United States, teenagers and young adults account for an increasing number of HIV infections every year and are now infected with and affected by HIV more than any other population group. The relationship between young people and the HIV/AIDS pandemic is fortified by a number of often interrelated factors.
Adolescence is the stage of development when young people become intrigued with sexual relations and experience sexual feelings. Most adolescents and young adults also develop a sense of invincibility which often results in risky behavioral experimentation, particularly when it comes to sexual contact.
Today, more information about effective HIV prevention is known than in years past. However, the high incidence of HIV infection among teenagers and young adults suggests that the inconsistency between what is known about prevention and what is actually done for protection needs to be addressed. The increasing rate of HIV infection among young people also indicates that more emphasis needs to be placed on HIV prevention.
While abstinence is the most effective method of prevention of sexual transmission of HIV, consistent and correct use of condoms significantly lowers the risk and rates of HIV transmission. A mutually monogamous sexual relationship with someone who is not infected with HIV also decreases the chances of HIV transmission. However, most young people with HIV were infected through sex, and many young people have had multiple sexual partners.
Who is especially at risk for HIV?
The HIV/AIDS pandemic disproportionately affects specific populations of teenagers and young adults. Young men who have sex with men (MSM), young people who live on the streets, African-American and Latino teenagers and young adults, and women between the ages of 15 and 24 are especially at risk of becoming infected with HIV.
There are a number of social factors that contribute to the high incidence of HIV infection in high-risk population groups in the United States. When a young person is the victim of homophobia, poverty, sexism or racism, his or her self-esteem and confidence often are deeply affected. As a result, that young person's inclination to openly discuss sex and sexuality, and his/her sense of self-respect, which would encourage self-protection, are significantly lessened.
Effective Prevention Methods for Young People -- What Works?
HIV/AIDS awareness efforts, particularly those aimed at young people, need to focus on HIV prevention and all of the risks with which young people today are faced. The current state of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States illustrates that addressing risk factors in isolation is not effective in reducing the prevalence of HIV infection among teenagers and young adults. The time has come for educators, community and faith leaders, and public health officials to design and implement comprehensive HIV prevention programs that address the synergy of risks that threaten the health of young people.
HIV prevention initiatives geared to young IDUs require a number of concerted efforts.
Despite the increase in HIV prevention messages targeted toward MSM, a shocking number of young MSM continue to engage in unsafe anal sex. This partly is due to their perceived notion that 1) HIV infections are typically among older MSMs and 2) their peers are practicing unsafe anal and oral sex as well.
Prevention efforts geared toward young MSM need to be based on the idea that young MSM often sit at the intersection of HIV and drug/alcohol use. According to a recent study by CDC, many MSM rely on alcohol and drug use to enhance sexual relations and to accomplish a sense of identity and intimacy in the community. Therefore, substance abuse counseling and treatment services need to be incorporated as integral components of HIV prevention efforts aimed at young MSM.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is especially apparent in young population groups of color.
The disproportionate number of communities of color (especially African-American and Latino) that are affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic strongly suggests that many of the HIV prevention efforts thus far have not been successful.
A number of factors -- including exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, injection drug use and unsafe sexual practices -- increase the risk of HIV infection for these population subgroups. These risk factors need to be addressed in HIV prevention efforts aimed at young people of color because only advocating abstinence simply is not enough.
HIV prevention programs aimed at young people of color are more effective when they are comprehensive, addressing all of the risk factors and situations with which young people of color are confronted. Programs that address a risk factor in isolation or offer only one solution are not effective in educating young people or changing their sexual behaviors.
Community and faith leaders as well as educators need to abandon the tendency to only offer abstinence as an HIV prevention method. Instead, young people, particularly those of color, need to be given the education, means and support to protect themselves and each other from HIV.
Prevention programs aimed at young women need to realistically address the topic of sexual relations, condoms and protection. AIDS-related illnesses are the third leading cause of death for women between the ages of 25 and 44. Women of color, particularly African-American and Latina women, are especially at risk of becoming infected with HIV and together are represented in more than three fourths of all reported AIDS cases among women.
Prevention programs need to address these issues and equip adolescent and adult young women with the confidence and knowledge to make healthy decisions about themselves and HIV.
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This article was provided by American Association for World Health. It is a part of the publication Be a Force for Change.