I am 27 years old and I've never known a world without HIV/AIDS. As part of the first generation born into this epidemic, people my age and younger have always had to deal with a world where sex was not just bringing life but it was potentially taking it, too. You’d think we'd be more conscious of the implications of this epidemic, since in our world, sex has always included the threat of HIV. However, it seems that young folks aren't taking HIV/AIDS as seriously as they should.
This past week, the Center for Disease Control released statistics saying people ages 13-24 are a quarter of new HIV infections in the United States, and half of them don't even know they're infected. As we make some strides in the fight against HIV, hearing statistics like this can be disheartening because it feels like we’re moving backwards. Young people are increasingly infected with HIV, and we need to fix it now. But how?
We haven't done enough to educate our youth on the crisis we're facing with HIV/AIDS, as well as on the facts of the disease itself. We’ve failed to depict the severity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and we've also failed to empower young people with information to allow them to make better choices. Our silence is only increasing the stigma, and that veil is doing us all a disservice.
Thanks to advancements in medicine and technology, HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence. People are living long, fulfilling lives while infected with the disease. However, it is still not the common cold or the flu and we cannot forget that or let others do the same. Young people might not see HIV from this lens so we need to make them.
Understanding that scare tactics aren't the best, we need to have real conversations with our youth about HIV/AIDS. We sometimes take our knowledge for granted and assume people know the same things we do. They might not realize that HIV isn’t some phantom illness that they’ve heard about, but a real concern affecting so many of their peers. And maybe even someone they know.
Beyond that, we need to educate young people on the facts of the virus itself. In my work with my nonprofit, The Red Pump Project, we've done workshops for teenagers where we create open spaces for them to ask us sexual health questions. We’ve facilitated sessions where we break down myths about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. However, we learn more when we open up the floor to the young people and allow them to ask us questions. It’s these times when we realize how little of this information they know, but how much they want it.
One time, a young lady asked us, "Is it true you can't get HIV if you have sex when you're on your period?" As we let her know it was false, we realized that we assume young people have this information. We think they already know the facts, and we expect them to act on it. They must understand that they are all the face of HIV/AIDS because they are all at risk for it.
We need to arm young people with information that allows them to make better choices with their bodies and their health. Given that most schools teach an abstinence-only curriculum to students, we are ignoring those who are already sexually active. We need to make our youth feel safe about discussing sex and their bodies. They need to feel empowered to talk about these topics with trusted adults and their peers. And we need to offer them resources and spaces to go when they do need help.
Still, I'm brought back to the fact that half of young people infected with HIV don’t even know it. In this case, ignorance is far from bliss, and we must fight it. On this (and every) World AIDS Day, people are uniting around the globe to decrease stigma, increase education and raise awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But even more importantly, our goal is to beat this disease so it takes no more lives.
We need to be educated about HIV and know our status. If adults don’t know their HIV status, how can they be examples for youth? To get tested, go HIVtest.org to find a testing site near you. If you’re uninsured or low on money some places offer testing free of charge. And remember to include our youth in the solution to this massive problem—encourage them to get tested, too. They were born in a world that’s always known HIV, but knowing their status is the first step to solving the problem.
Together let’s find out our HIV status. Click here to add this to your GOOD "to-do" list.
Doctor ticking box on a blood test form image via Shutterstock