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April 10 is National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day, spotlighting the long struggle to protect some of our most vulnerable Americans from these diseases. We are slowly gaining ground in the fight against HIV and AIDS, but rates of the disease increase and its suppression decreases in populations without stable housing or consistent access to health care. This is especially true for youth and young adult populations, who often bear the heaviest burden of health care inequality.
The outlook for America's fight against HIV and AIDS is optimistic, although should still be treated with gravity. The data surrounding the diseases shows declining rates, but ones that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations:
Although HIV rates are declining for everyone, and the rate of sexual activity among teenagers have been consistently dropping for years, young people are still sometimes at increased risk of the disease compared to older Americans. Increased education and access to health care services is the best way to decrease this risk.
One of our best sources of data regarding youth rates of HIV and AIDS is the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which provides services to more than half the Americans diagnosed with these diseases. It's a government program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), and HIV/AIDS Bureau (HAB).
The RWHAP data regarding younger clients shows a vulnerable population in need:
Also alarming are the relative numbers of RWHAP youth clients who are not virally suppressed. Viral suppression is when the amount of a virus drops to an undetectable level, which means that a person has effectively no risk of transferring the virus to a partner. RWHAP youth clients who are receiving RWHAP care for HIV have much lower rates of viral suppression than the RWHAP average of 87.1 percent:
However, it should be noted that nationwide, only 59.8 HIV and AIDS patients are virally suppressed, showing that programs like RWHAP do work in reducing the spread of these diseases and improving the lives of those who have them. Consistent access to HIV medication can reduce the viral load to the point of suppression, which makes this access crucial.
Whether you're a young person, a parent, a medical professional, or a trusted adult in the life of a young person, HIV prevention starts with frank, open discussions about sexual health. Some ideas:
We usually don't talk about our personal experiences in these blog posts, as regular readers know. But speaking as someone who was a child in the early 90s, I first became aware of HIV and AIDS when they were still bogeymen and still associated by many people exclusively with the LGBTQ community (and treated as a moral judgment that justified discrimination). It's been heartening to watch awareness of the disease increase, education increase, and rates decline. But access to education, testing, and health care has to be provided equally. Gulfs in support and services between different populations endanger everyone.