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Passing the Torch: Reflections for National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day

April 10th is National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, it represents a call for young people to come together and take part in the continual fight against HIV/AIDS. But today, like many others, I find myself cooped up in my home following news of a different virus. Television these days seems to be on a nonstop cycle of Coronavirus coverage. Each and every day there are officials, journalists, doctors, and scientists analyzing the situation, covering both fact and opinion. One guy worth mentioning is Dr. Anthony Fauci. The Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, he is seen by many as the leading authority viral epidemics in the United States. So, what does this guy know about epidemics? When I did a little more research into his background, I found that since the early 1980s, Dr. Fauci has spent the majority of his career in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Given this it is no surprise that during a television briefing, he made connections on how this virus highlights significant health disparities in our country much like HIV/AIDS once did for the LGBT community. He praised the community for “incredible courage and dignity and strength” as well as incredible activism in the face of extraordinary stigma (Reynolds, 2020).

And now if at any time, we have to reflect on how true his statement really is.

Throughout our history, the LGBTQ community has powered through periods of intense adversity, emerging with profound courage and resilience. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, the community banded together to cope with the seemingly insurmountable challenge that was erroneously dubbed by the media as the “Gay Cancer”. People turned to one another, forming close-knit chosen families, bonded by a shared experience and a desire for survival. But through this struggle, some of the greatest examples of activism were born. Organizations such as: The Gay Men’s Health Crisis; ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power); the NAMES Project, just to mention a few, rose up to address needs in the community and raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. It can be argued that this epidemic led to the advancement of the Gay Rights Movement. With an estimated 700,000 deaths since discovery in the United States alone, it was an advancement that came at a great cost.

Today in the year 2020, things are very different. It has been almost 40 years since the discovery of HIV/AIDS. Many of the heroes and survivors of that era are now close to their 70s and 80s, and countless others are no longer with us. LGBT visibility has increased. Science has advanced significantly, and with antiretroviral therapy treatment, HIV patients live longer healthy lives. PrEP medication is becoming steadily becoming more available and estimated to have a 99% prevention rate. What was once a death sentence has now been classified by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a chronic condition.

So, where does this leave our current generation, especially young LGBTQ people, in the fight against HIV/AIDS?

Today’s youth are coming of age in a society where HIV doesn’t have the same presence in the national conversation as it did years ago. For myself, being born an entire decade after the crisis, I am part of the first generation to never know a world without HIV or AIDS. Growing up it was something I knew existed but wasn’t something really discussed other than a “make sure you stay away if someone cuts themselves on the playground” discussion. To many young people today, it’s something that they see in documentaries or stories on television, as opposed to experiencing the magnitude of a pandemic. I myself really only encountered small things about HIV very passively, like watching the musical Rent (the movie, not even the Broadway show).

Why should we focus on it? Well the reality is that even in the year 2020, with all the major progress we have made, HIV and AIDS still exists and continues to impact lives every day. As recently as 2018, 37,832 people were diagnosed with HIV, adding to an estimated population of 1.1 million people who live with HIV in the United States. Young people are significantly at risk for contracting HIV, and according to the CDC:


· Youth between the ages of 13 and 24 make up 21% of all new HIV cases with approximately 1,000 young people diagnosed each month.

· Its estimated that 14% of people with HIV (1 in 7) do not know they are positive.

· 92% of those new transmissions occur among young Gay and Bisexual young men.

· HIV infected youth are the least likely group to be aware of their infection, to retain medical care or have a suppressed (undetectable) viral load.

And there’s a lot of potential reasons why young people are increasingly more vulnerable. Thinking back, by the time I had my first sex education class I was 16 years old (and it was just one class session).


· Across the country, sex ed does not start early enough, and access to age-appropriate sex edu is declining

· We have low testing rates. I don’t remember there being any information on how to be tested while I was in high school, despite a lot of sexual activity happening. Only 9% of high school aged youth were tested in 2017

· Youth have more partners, but lower rates of condom use – 46% of sexually active high school students did not use condoms in previous encounters.

· Young people with HIV are more likely to live in a household with a low income.

Seeing these statistics and facts is shocking to me. I mean, our generation has so many resources and knowledge quite literally at our fingertips, a gift that those before us could only have dreamed about. Are we too busy vaping and watching cat videos to really understand the magnitude of the problem, let alone take action?

As young adults, it is time be a part of the conversation and take an active role in the fight against HIV/AIDS. After all we bring great strengths to the table. We have experience in using new technologies and social media to engage and connect with others, we are always learning new and creative ways to educate and spread information, we have a front row seat to the everyday challenges younger people face, and we have the body of work passed down to us over 40 years. Young adults and youth have an obligation to take an active part in this fight now while we are young, as those elders and leaders who have carried the torch for so many years won’t be here forever. We will ultimately have to inherit the responsibility for HIV/AIDS education, advocacy and prevention. So, I pose this question to my generation and the next: Are we ready to accept the torch carried by those before us, and lead the fight against HIV/AIDS into the new era?

As we observed National Youth HIV/AIDS awareness day this year on April 10th, many of us were caught in the middle of this global COVID-19 pandemic. It is an uncertain time, full of questions, misunderstandings, fears and anxiety. This year now more ever, as we reflect on the impact of HIV/AIDS among youth, it is important to recognize that although right now physically separated, our community still stands together, no matter which virus, united by a history of strength and resiliency.

Additional Resources:

· For more resources on how to get involved, and on National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day visit www.advocatesforyouth.org/nyhaad


If you or someone you know is living with HIV or AIDS, remember you are not alone. The Borderland Rainbow Center Positive Conversations HIV Support Group currently meets virtually and by phone every Wednesday from 3:30 to 4:30. Email joey@borderlandrainbow.org for more details.

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV Surveillance Report, 2018 (Preliminary); vol. 30. http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/library/reports/hiv-surveillance.html. Published November 2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV Surveillance- Adolescents and Young Adults, 2018 (Preliminary). https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/library/slidesets/cdc-hiv-surveillance-adolescents-young-adults-2018.pdf

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