Today, April 10th, is National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day. It's a day when we all should stop and pause for a moment to reflect on the importance of our nation's young people and the impact that HIV continues to have on their lives. In 2015, youth between the ages of 13 and 24 accounted for 1 in 5 new HIV diagnoses in the United States.
Young people are both our nation's present and our future. Ensuring that our youth remain healthy is particularly important. They are bringing new ideas, perspectives, and energy that are creating change today and will shape the future. They are tomorrow's leaders, tomorrow's professionals and workers, and tomorrow's parents and grandparents. They should not have to be tomorrow's people living with HIV.
Having the Conversations
We have the tools we need to achieve an AIDS-free generation -- in which AIDS is no longer a threat to life and health and new HIV infections are rare. In order to get to that point, we must give young people accurate, actionable, and age-appropriate information so that they have the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves and their partners from HIV, viral hepatitis, and other sexually transmitted infections. Schools and healthcare providers are essential sources of information, but parents and families have the chief responsibility for communicating with their children about risks and prevention. This is not an easy job, but there are some excellent resources and tools that can make these conversations a little easier and more effective.
Protecting Youth from HIV
Making sure that young people have the facts about HIV is essential. At the same time. the most important thing we can do to protect them from acquiring HIV is to improve outcomes for people already living with HIV along the HIV care continuum.
We've known for decades that people who know they are living with HIV are less likely to transmit the virus than those who don't know their status. We now have convincing long-term evidence from a major research study (HPTN 052) that individuals who start HIV treatment early have a 93% reduction in the risk of transmitting HIV to an HIV-negative partner.
What's even more important is what this and other studies have reported about the effects of treatment for those who achieve viral suppression: multiple studies have failed to identify a single case of HIV being transmitted by someone with a suppressed viral load. Increasing viral suppression among people living with HIV, regardless of their age, protects our youth and the entire nation by reducing the number of people who have higher viral loads that drive HIV transmission.
Young people who are at risk for HIV infection, and those who are living with HIV, have unique needs and experiences that we need to consider. Young people living with HIV are least likely to know their status, and they are least likely to have achieved viral suppression. We need to provide HIV testing to more youth with undiagnosed infection, improve linkage and retention in HIV medical care, provide them with access to HIV treatment, and increase viral suppression. All of these steps will play a major role in protecting our young people -- and the entire nation -- from HIV infection, and at the same time improving the health of people living with HIV and further reducing HIV-related deaths. Their future -- and ours -- depends on it.
Learn more about resources for National Youth HIV and AIDS Testing Day at AIDS.gov.
Richard Wolitski, Ph.D., is director of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.