By Myra Biernat Wells
He didn’t ever expect to find himself in this cruel situation. Sitting in the waiting room, he nervously kept one eye on the door, ready to bolt at any time. Uneasiness was a fire in his bones, so much so he no longer felt comfortable in his own skin. The thought of telling someone, of actually speaking the dreaded words to another person, caused a wave of shame that threatened to silence him even further. That’s why he came alone.
He knew he was doing the right thing, taking that next best step, but he also understood what happened today could shut him off from the life he always imagined. In his mind, he thought of himself as a courageous person, but this, this question of being infected with HIV, raised doubts. Would he have to give up college? Would he ever be able to get married? Harder still, how would he tell his parents? At age 18, a life flashed before him shorter than before, less fulfilling, permeated with the ever-present stigma of illness. He couldn’t sweep any of this under the carpet. He was emotionally exhausted when the nurse finally called his name.
Unfortunately, this young man’s fear is a reality for the 1,000 young people (ages 13 – 29 years) newly diagnosed with HIV each month in the United States.1 In Orange County, California of the 353 new HIV infections reported in 2011 and 2012, 156 (44.2%) of them were in the 0 – 29 years age group. This means that in Orange County, 6 people under the age of 30 years each month have learned the life-altering results of an HIV+ diagnosis.2
The statistics from the CDC are even more sobering: young people aged 13 – 29 years accounted for 39% of all new HIV injections. Almost 80% of all new infections in this age group are to males. Of the approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV, approximately one if five or 220,000 doesn’t know they are infected. Unfortunately for young people, the CDC estimated more than half of all undiagnosed HIV infections are in the 13 – 24 year old category.3
HIV diagnosis rates for youth aged 15 – 19 years and 20 – 24 years have increased steadily. That’s because adolescents engage in behaviors that put them at risk for HIV infection mostly because a large portion are not informed and/or concerned about becoming infected. Among U.S. high school students surveyed in 2011: 47% have had sexual intercourse at least once; 40% of currently sexually active students did not use a condom the last time they had sex; and 15% have had four or more sexual partners-also making you more susceptible to other co-infections (CI’s) and sexually transmitted infections (STI’s). Yet only 13% report have ever having an HIV test!4
If you have engaged in behavior that puts you at risk for HIV, please get tested. Early detection when your immune system is least compromised can dramatically improve life expectancy – to decades rather than months or a few years! If you have not engaged in risky behavior, remember that abstaining from unprotected sex and sharing needles during intravenous drug use are the two most effective ways to avoid HIV infection.
No matter how old you are, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest offers free and confidential HIV testing every third Sunday of the month. Click HERE for testing information.
If you live outside Orange County, many organizations provide testing. Just Google “Free HIV Testing” for a location near you.
Note: The character at the beginning of the story is a composite, non-fictional character.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: HIV Among Youth
2 Orange County Health Care Agency, 2012 HIV/AIDS Fact Sheet
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: HIV Surveillance – United States 1981-2008
4 Office of Adolescent Health: Teens and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic, 2011