Nov. 27, 2012 -- Every month, 1,000 more young Americans ages 13 to 24 get an incurable infection that's deadly unless held at bay by daily doses of costly drugs -- and many of them don't even know it.
That infection is HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And teens are at the heart of the ongoing U.S. HIV epidemic, says CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH.
"We see HIV infections increasing in young people but decreasing in older people. So young people are driving the epidemic," Frieden said today at a news conference held to announce the new data. "Given everything we know after 30 years of this epidemic, it is just unacceptable that young people are becoming infected at such high rates."
Some 60% of HIV-infected 13- to 24-year-olds don't know they're carrying the AIDS virus. This means they aren't getting HIV drugs. These treatments have a dual benefit. They help keep a person from getting AIDS, and they make that person vastly less likely to infect someone else.
But you can't get treated unless you get tested. Even though the CDC recommended routine HIV tests starting at age 13, very few young people ever got one:
- Only a third of Americans ages 13 to 24 have ever had an HIV test.
- Only 13% of high-school students have ever had an HIV test.
- Only 22% of sexually active high-school students have ever had an HIV test.
"If we are ever going to see a generation free from AIDS, we have to intensify prevention for all people, especially gay and bisexual males," Frieden said.
Men who have sex with other men get nearly three-fourths of new infections among young people.
One reason young gay and bisexual males have such a high infection rate is that they are far more likely than other young men (or young women) to have multiple sex partners, to use alcohol or drugs when having sex, and to have sex with older partners. They're also less likely to use condoms.
And more than half of young Americans getting infected with HIV are black, notes Kevin Fenton, MD, PhD, director of the CDC's AIDS division.
"High rates of HIV in the community of African-American men who have sex with men increase young black men's risk," he said at the news conference. "Stigma, discrimination, and homophobia are barriers to prevention in this community -- and many of these young men lack health care."
Frieden said the CDC is focusing on programs targeting high-risk young people. But he asked for help.
"Young people themselves need to get information about HIV and AIDS, to resist pressure to have sex and do drugs, and to get tested," he said. "Families can talk to their kids often and early about prevention. And all Americans can talk honestly and openly about HIV to combat the stigma and fear that keep people from getting tested and treated."
The CDC's new data on HIV in U.S. youth appear in a Nov. 27 early release of MMWR.