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Why Are Millennial HIV Rates on the Rise?

In the mid-1980s and most of the 1990s, HIV/AIDS was a hot topic. Experts went from thinking that it was a disease that only affected gay men to realizing that HIV could affect anyone. They learned that it, in addition to being transmitted through sexual contact, it could be spread via contaminated blood transfusions.

While the disease was still poorly understood, people like Ryan White and NBA star Magic Johnson made the condition palpable even to people who didn't completely understand it. While we've come a long way from the early days of understanding the disease, we still have a distance to go in terms of education and prevention.

These issues are not seeing improvement under the Trump administration. The problem? The president's lofty objectives are not being paired with policies to bring about substantive improvement. Despite an ambitious goal of ending the epidemic in the next decade, Trump's actual policies are not helping. The administration's global gag rule, for instance, is inhibiting efforts to improve the situation. Of the demographics affected, millennials are especially vulnerable.

According to a 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans 13 to 29 years of age represented 23 percent of the U.S. population but accounted for 40 percent of all HIV diagnoses in 2014. The rate of infections in one specific age range within this large group brought even more concern to experts: Millennials actually experienced an increase in the rates of HIV infection.

These statistics are frightening, but government officials, physicians, and others remain optimistic that there are ways to change the numbers and control this deadly disease. Here are the essentials you need to know about HIV/AIDS and why the rates of millennials with the disease are on the rise.

Understanding HIV/AIDS

Most people have a general knowledge of HIV/AIDS. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, and it can destroy a person's ability to fight off infections. Having a damaged immune system leaves those with HIV at a higher risk of certain cancers and infections that can be deadly. The final stage of HIV is known as AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It's important to remember that not everyone who develops HIV will develop AIDS, but everyone with AIDS has had HIV.

This virus is transmitted through sex and sharing dirty needles. HIV can affect both sexes equally. However, there are certain populations who are at a higher risk of HIV/AIDS infections. A few at-risk groups include gay and bisexual men and African-American males. Some people might think that these two groups are at the top of the list merely because of lifestyle choices, but many researchers believe that poverty levels, limited access to healthcare and preventive health services, and negative attitudes from the medical community might be responsible for the higher-than-average rates.

Because we understand HIV/AIDS better today than in the past, our ability to treat the infection has improved. People diagnosed with HIV/AIDS can expect to have about the same life expectancy as someone without the condition, mainly because of new medications. Those diagnosed can now go on to live long, fruitful lives, with the life expectancy of those diagnosed being 35 to 60 years.

Advancements in Treatment

It's amazing to think that the life expectancy and ability to treat HIV/AIDS was so limited 40 years ago. Today, there are more FDA approved HIV drugs than ever before. Drugs like Destrigo and Pietro can be used for HIV-positive adults who have never been on other antiretroviral agents. Both of the drugs are made by Merck, who acknowledged that because HIV is a constantly changing virus, no one treatment will ever work for every patient. This is why multiple types of drugs will continue to be made available. They enable physicians to create individualized treatment plans for those with the disease.

Another recent drug advancement in HIV treatment is the formulation of drugs like Truvada, which falls into a classification of drugs known as pre-exposure prophylaxis. Truvada is a combination drug that contains both emtricitabine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate. This medication is effective in treating and preventing HIV. Truvada can reduce the level of virus in the system, is easy to use, and has fewer side effects than other available treatment options.

Why the Rise in Millennials?

With all of these advancements in diagnosis and treatment, you might be rubbing your head and questioning why HIV rates in millennials are on the rise. Experts had the same question and began looking into several possible reasons. Here are a few of the things they found:

Low Testing Rates

According to a Mic article, 54 percent of all adults in the U.S. have been tested for HIV at least once. However, only 33 percent of adults under the age of 24 and about 25 percent of teens have ever been tested for the virus. This is an astounding statistic given that the CDC recommends that anyone over the age of 13 be tested.

When you dig even further into the numbers, you'll discover that the stats vary by race and sex. Black men and women had the highest rates of testing at 45.3 and 59.9 percent, respectively. The least likely to be tested were young white men, with only a 22.8 percent testing rate.

Hook-Up Culture

Are millennials engaging in more casual sex than past generations? Do a quick online search, and you can find data to support or disprove this notion. However, the CDC reported that young people aged 15 to 24 were at a higher risk of contracting specific sexually transmitted diseases. Nearly 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea were diagnosed in 2017 alone, making it an all-time high in U.S. history.

While teenagers and millennials report having less sex and fewer partners, and condom use is up, the rate of STIs and STDs is soaring. Some experts note the relaxed feelings towards sexual acts might be one reason for these numbers, which could be another reason for climbing HIV statistics.

Poor Preventive Health

A Kaiser Health News article reports that millennials prefer fast service and price transparency over relationships when it comes to primary care services. In fact, 45 percent of adults between the ages of 18-29 reported not having a primary care physician at all in a recent survey. Could this lack of care, conversations about health behaviors, and a healthy doctor-patient relationship be to blame for the rise in HIV/AIDS among this population? It's hard to say for sure, but it's common knowledge that not having routine health exams can leave you susceptible to many health risks.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We've learned a lot about HIV/AIDS and sexual health in the last few decades. One thing we know for sure is that if we don't talk about the problem with young people, we won't change the trajectory of the disease over time. Organizations like UNAIDS have created goals for people around the globe to know their status and receive treatment. Here in the states, the District of Columbia has adopted similar goals with a hope to identify those with the virus, get them treatment, and achieve suppression of the amount of virus in their system.

The current administration needs to take note of these statistics and act accordingly. Efforts to increase education and access to preventive care, as well as treatment, are the only ways to change these numbers. Together, we can eradicate HIV. We have come a long way and plan to continue the fight for years to come.

Posted by Magnolia at April 11, 2019 1:43 PM
Comment #441464

Perhaps due to reports of treatments that sound almost like cures?

Posted by: d.a.n at April 11, 2019 5:37 PM
Comment #441524

I read a story about people in San Fransisco who would contact HIV just to get away from using protection. It was a conscious decision to infect themselves.

Posted by: Weary Willie at April 13, 2019 1:53 PM
Comment #441525

Plus, once you’re diagnosed with HIV you get on Medic-aid for life.

Posted by: Weary Willie at April 13, 2019 1:54 PM
Comment #441574
Weary Willie wrote: I read a story about people in San Fransisco who would contact HIV just to get away from using protection. It was a conscious decision to infect themselves.
Plus, once you’re diagnosed with HIV you get on Medic-aid for life.
Which may not be very long. Posted by: d.a.n at April 14, 2019 2:22 PM
Comment #441578
Which may not be very long.

Not really, d.a.n

Thirty years ago, the life expectancy of someone living with HIV was around 20 years. Now, it’s not uncommon for those living with HIV to have the same life expectancy as someone who isn’t HIV positive.
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