It's been 24 years since the first World AIDS Day. There have been great advancements in fighting HIV/AIDS, but new infections in young people means there's still a long way to go.
World AIDS Day is marked on December 1st every year. It's a day to raise awareness, as well as funds to continue an aggressive and ongoing battle against the virus that has killed over 25 million people since it emerged in the early 1980s.
At this year's International AIDS Conference, held on American soil for the first time in decades, AIDS experts called for “the end of AIDS.” Many were optimistic that the world might see an AIDS-free generation within our lifetimes.
But that goal is not quite within grasp yet. One strong indicator of the work to be done in America is a recent report on HIV infection among young people.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, young people between the ages of 13 and 24 represent more than a quarter of new HIV infections in America each year. What's even more disturbing is that 60 percent of them don't know they're infected.
In a conference call with reporters, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Friedan said, "Given everything we know about HIV and how to prevent it in 30 years of fighting the disease, it's just unacceptable that young people are becoming infected at such high rates.”
The CDC estimates that 12,200 young people were infected with HIV in 2010. That works out to about 1,000 new infections each month.
These estimates come from the CDC's National HIV Surveillance System, which collects information on HIV trends from around the country.
Infections are disproportionate among different ethnicities. Of those new HIV cases, 55 percent were among African Americans, 20 percent were among Hispanics/Latinos, and 20 percent were among whites.
But what most cases have in common is the method of infection. Men who have sex with men are by far the most at risk population, especially among young people: Over 72 percent of the 12,200 new infections were attributed to sexual contact between males.
According to Reuters, Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention said that the number of young people infected with HIV has remained mostly unchanged over the past few years, but infection rates have risen disproportionately among blacks and men who have sex with men.
Many factors contribute to this rise. Young gay and bisexual men are more likely to have sex with multiple partners, are less likely to use a condom, and are also less likely to report having been taught about HIV and AIDS in school.
The bottom line is that HIV is more common in some communities than others. If you're in a community that contains a high number of infected people, you have a greater chance of contracting HIV in each sexual encounter than someone in a community where HIV is rare.
There are social and economic factors at play as well – poverty and lack of access to health care increase the chances that HIV is not being treated or addressed. Stigma and discrimination against those with HIV can create a barrier to getting treatment, even if the person knows they have the virus.
But don't forget the CDC report's statistic that the majority (60 percent) of young people infected with HIV do not know they have the virus. That's because most of them have not been tested.
A simple HIV test, which can take less than an hour to get results, is recommended as a routine medical test for youth. But only 35 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have ever been tested for HIV.
What's more, only 13 percent of high school students and 22 percent of sexually experienced students have been tested. Those are small numbers.
The result of the low testing rate is fewer young people with HIV end up getting care and staying in treatment. That means they're in greater danger of getting sick, and spreading the virus to others.
Public health officials consider testing to be a crucial first step to preventing the spread of HIV and keeping HIV infected individuals healthy and alive.
There are many public health campaigns that target high-risk youth populations and encourage them to learn about the risks of HIV and how to get tested. According to the CDC report, “ Interventions for youths have been proven effective for delaying initiation of sexual activity, increasing condom use, and reducing other risk behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use.”
Youths need special treatment because they are less likely than older adults to be tested, get care, remain in care, and stay healthy. It's a lot of responsibility to take care of your health, and it's something young people may not prioritize.
The CDC and other organizations are working on several different methods to help youths avoid infection, and bring about the “end of AIDS.” But it will be a long road.
To look at the bigger picture, 33.3 million people globally are living with HIV. Other parts of the world are more heavily impacted than America: Africa and Asia are the most active centers of the epidemic.
Although our understanding about HIV and AIDS has evolved, along with the treatments that fight it, there's no silver bullet for ending AIDS. Across the world, people are working to develop vaccines, protective medications and tools to spread knowledge and testing to even the most remote areas that have been affected.
Take action in your community. If you haven't been tested, take the first step and take the test and encourage your friends to do the same.
Visit hivtest.cdc.org to find out where you can take it - it's often free at clinics. HIV tests are now available over the counter as well, online or in pharmacies for about forty dollars.