While HIV and AIDS no longer dominate the headlines the way they did in the 1980s and 90s, the risk of contracting HIV is still a serious one. Unfortunately, this message does not seem to be reaching young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of sexually active American teens and young adults are not being tested for the contagious virus.
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, only 1 in 5 high school-aged youth have been tested for HIV, and an estimated 50 percent of young Americans infected with HIV are unaware they have it, which can lead to the spread of infection.
Young black men and women account for more than 55 percent of all new HIV infections, while both Hispanic and white youths each account for close to 20 percent. Although gay and bisexual men are at greatest risk, more than a quarter of all new infections are in young women and heterosexual young men.
"Unfortunately, I think young people underestimate their risk for many things, including their risk for HIV," says Dr. Aimee Lopes, a family medicine doctor and HIV treatment specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. "Our younger generation was not witness to the earlier death and destruction of HIV and AIDS, so it is not something that they seem very concerned about."
Dr. Lopes believes that because HIV is no longer considered fatal, due to the advances in medicine, young people have become complacent about it. However, HIV is a contagious, life-long disease that requires indefinite treatment and can lead to death if not properly treated.
The lack of access to confidential care for young people, lack of education about sexually transmitted diseases, and the stigma and shame related to HIV and AIDS lead to the low HIV testing numbers, Dr. Lopes says. Although the CDC recommends HIV testing for men and women ages 13 to 64, many doctors don't recommend testing to young people. Furthermore, young men and women are not seeking it out on their own.
"In general, sexually transmitted diseases are not being discussed. It is our job as physicians to educate our patients to the best of our ability," says Dr. Lopes. "We need to educate our kids and their parents about the long-term effects of HIV and other diseases, and we need to provide opportunities for testing."
Dr. Lopes says that providing resources on the Internet that are educational and informative in a way that encourages conversation is crucial. She would like to see the message about HIV and the behavioral issues around risk addressed more prominently in social media, on high school and college campuses, and anywhere else that has a captive audience of young people.
"Helping kids to be open about sexuality and their own sexual health is the first step," she says. "Then a meaningful discussion around the risk of HIV and disease prevention can take place."
This story was updated May 2017.