Young gay and bisexual Black males are hit hardest by new HIV-infection rates and that’s not the worst news: Most of them do not even know it, according to survey results released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Young people between the ages of 13 and 24 represent more than a quarter of new HIV infections each year (26 percent), and most of the youth living with HIV (60 percent) are unaware they are infected, according to a Vital Signs report from the CDC.
Young gay and bisexual men and African-Americans represent the group of young people who are most-affected, the report says. In 2010, 72 percent of estimated new HIV infections in young people occurred in young men who have sex with men (MSM). By race/ethnicity, 57 percent of estimated new infections in this age group were in African Americans, the report shows.
The sad news is that most never get tested because of social and economic factors, such as poverty, lack of access to health care, the stigma of being gay or bisexual, and discrimination, the report says.
The data reveals the latest information on HIV infections, testing, and risk behaviors among young people and was published in advance of World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, with the hopes of reaching and educating people about the importance of safe sex and getting tested.
“Given everything we know about HIV and how to prevent it after more than 30 years of fighting the disease, it is just unacceptable that young people are becoming infected at such high rates,” Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., CDC director, said during a conference call about the report. “Reducing HIV among young people is a top priority for the CDC. This is about the health of a new generation and protecting them from an entirely preventable disease.”
Dr. Frieden lamented that despite treatment advances, the virus remains incurable, which is a tremendous burden on the health care system. He said the cost of care for a single patient is approximately $400,000 over his lifetime and added that because of the infection rate in young people, the nation is accruing about $400 million in health care costs every month and about $5 billion annually in preventable infections.
Overall, an estimated 12,200 new HIV infections occurred in 2010 among young people aged 13-24, with young gay and bisexual men and African Americans hit harder by HIV than their peers, the report shows.
Kevin Fenton, M.D., director, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, CDC., said education is the key to reducing the numbers in the African-American community.
“Homophobia, addressing risk behavior, and access to treatment all have an impact on the infection rate,” Fenton told NewsOne in a separate interview. “There are lots of complexities around the epidemic, but that will not prevent us from doing a good job. We are ensuring that all Americans have information. It’s critical to reach all young people to inform them about HIV, how to practice safe sex, and how to get tested. The CDC has been doing a lot of work in this space.”
Despite recommendations from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics that call for routine HIV testing of youth in medical settings, the report shows that few young people have been tested for HIV. Only 13 percent of high school students have ever been tested for HIV, which is 22 percent of sexually experienced students.
As a result of lower testing levels, HIV-infected people under the age of 25 are significantly less likely than those who are older to get and stay in care and to have their virus controlled at a level that helps them stay healthy and reduce their risk of transmitting HIV to partners.
The CDC also examined risk behaviors among high school students in 12 states and nine large urban school districts and found that young men who sleep with men (MSM) reported engaging in substantially higher levels of risk behavior than their heterosexual male peers:
Young MSM were more likely to report having had sex with four or more partners or injecting illegal drugs.
Among students who were currently sexually active, young MSM were more likely to have used alcohol or drugs before their last sexual experience and were less likely to have used a condom.
Young MSM were also less likely to report having been taught about HIV or AIDS in school.
Only 35 percent of people aged 18 to 24 years have been tested.
“The new data included in today’s release helps us to better understand why HIV is taking such a heavy toll on young men who have sex with men and highlights the importance of addressing risk behaviors and improving our education and efforts to address the epidemic in young people,” Frieden said. “As we work to drive down new HIV infections in all populations, we have to give particular attention to the next generation, especially African-American and gay and bisexual young men. Every young person should know how to protect themselves from HIV and should be empowered to do so. Protecting our next generation from HIV is key to achieving a vision of an AIDS-free generation in the U.S.”