December 1, 2013 marks the 25th annual World Aids Day. Beginning in 1988, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the worldwide effort was, and still is, about bringing awareness of AIDS, providing support for those living with the disease, and remembering those who have lost their lives. The theme for this year’s events is “Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation.”
The focus is rather poignant in light of new data indicating that 25 percent of all new HIV infections occur in youth aged 13-24. This age group also accounts for half of all new occurrences of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These increases are occurring at the same time that sexual activity among teens is on the decline.
For the generation that has never known a time when HIV and AIDS did not exist, it’s alarming that they are bearing the biggest burden of STIs and a significant portion of the new HIV infection. For those of us that became sexually active in the 1980s and 1990s, a great deal of focus was put on condom use as the best defense against infection. The message was simple: use a condom or risk death.
In the decades since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, there have been many advances in detection and treatment. HIV is no longer looked at as an automatic death sentence, but a chronic – and treatable – disease. The current generation of sexually active teens does not have the morbid fear of sex leading to death. Today, any consequences of sex are treatable.
It’s that lack of fear that is leading to the increase in STIs.
Part of the problem is incomplete information. In a CDC study of school sex education programs in 45 states, it found that information on HIV and STI prevention had decreased in a majority of states in 2010. Furthermore, several states showed a significant decrease in the amount of information given about the importance of condoms, how to use them and even how to obtain them. The lack of comprehensive education was highest in states requiring abstinence only education.
They are also not getting information on the correlation between HIV and STD infections.
While fewer teens are having sex and more are using condoms their first time, the percentage of condom use decreases with future sexual activity. A study of Canadian college students noted that of those who reported having sex within the last year, only half used a condom. The majority who used condoms in the study cite pregnancy as the main reason for using condoms. Only 6 percent cite STIs.
Canada has also seen a significant increase in sexually transmitted diseases.
In the United States, most sex education is about pregnancy prevention, and if there is a discussion of condom use, it is most often about the effectiveness in that area. If a teen girl is using another form of birth control, a condom is seen as less of a necessity because of the lack of concern of disease. The lack of education, assumptions that their partner is disease free, and the myths such as condoms making sex less pleasurable, has led to a generation of who could end up having lifetime medical costs in the billions.
Through great advances, we have forgotten about the basics. We need to remain vigilant in our efforts to provide education and information about all risks involved, not just pregnancy. Not just on World AIDS Day, but every day.
Let us reflect, remember, and remind ourselves of our shared responsibility to keep sex safe.