Columbia, SC — ‘How do you get rid of it?”
The question from a college-age woman who had just learned she had been infected with the virus that causes AIDS shook me at my core. I struggled for the most compassionate way to tell her, “You don’t.”
But before I could muster the strength, she added that she was pregnant. My heart sank.
That was back in May 1998 during a time I had written multiple columns outlining the many challenges our community, state and nation were facing in the effort to combat HIV and AIDS. The young woman was one of a number of African-American women who called me. I had noted that black women were being infected at a faster rate than anyone else in South Carolina, many by husbands and long-term partners who were having sex with other men.
The litany of questions the young woman asked made it clear she knew nothing about HIV/AIDS. It was as if she thought she could take a pill or have a procedure and be rid of the virus.
Even after our 45-minute exchange, she didn’t seem to understand that this wasn’t something you “get rid of.”
And 15 years later, HIV/AIDS remains a disease you don’t simply “get rid of,” although that’s difficult to tell considering the hazardous sexual practices and lifestyles some continue to engage in with little regard of the consequences.
Thus the need for National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, held last week, the observance of April as STD Awareness Month and the many other efforts people the country over undertake to educate the public about HIV/AIDS.
Drug treatments have improved drastically, helping people with HIV/AIDS live long lives. Hope is growing for a cure, even if it is years or decades away.
But the reality today and in the foreseeable future is that HIV/AIDS remains a deadly epidemic — in the United States and around the world. Despite our advances in medicine and aggressive efforts to rein in the spread of HIV/AIDS, educate people, increase awareness, promote voluntary testing and, most importantly, encourage people to change their behavior to decrease their risk factors, the challenges are as stiff today as ever.
It’s not for a lack of effort; while there is so much more we need to do, many government and nonprofit agencies, particularly those on the grassroots level, have been working tirelessly. Have their efforts been in vain? No. But it hasn’t been enough.
Many people, especially our youth and young adults, are as clueless about the epidemic as the 20-something-year-old I talked with back in ’98. Far too many high school and college students are contracting the disease and changing their lives — and the lives of others — forever.
A multiplicity of groups from across the nation working to halt its advance among young people came together April 10 to observe the first National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day.
In an email I received announcing the observance, officials stressed that the need to combat the epidemic continues and that it is as vital as ever to educate young people.
National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day was “about reminding people that AIDS still remains a very real threat,” Rachel Cooke, communications and public relations manager for Washington-based Advocates for Youths, wrote in her email. “With the recent news of AIDS ‘cures’, people are likely to forget that this disease is far from over.”
An Advocates for Youth press release noted that “today’s young people are the first generation who have never known a world without HIV and AIDS.”
The email shared some sobering statistics:
Every month, 1,000 youngsters under 24 contract HIV; more than 73,700 young people are living with HIV nationally.
Between 2006 and 2009, 13- to 29-year-olds were the only demographic to show an increase in the contraction of HIV.
One in four new HIV infections is among youth ages 13-24.
About 60 percent of HIV-positive young people do not know they’re infected.
Advocates for Youth and its partners stress the need to recommit to the battle against HIV/AIDS by educating the nation’s youth and activating them to help in the effort.
Many on the front lines say that continual outreach and education efforts, including programs on abstinence, delaying sex and practicing safe sex, are a must. That said, let’s be clear: The only safe sex is no sex.
Advocates say traditional methods of raising awareness may not be as effective with young people. For example, efforts to reach African-American adults in South Carolina have focused on distributing HIV/AIDS information via barbershops and hair salons. But new methods are needed to reach younger people.
Last week, State staff writer Joey Holleman wrote about two USC researchers who hope to use a graphic novel, which tells a story in a comic book-like format, to deliver the message about HIV/AIDS to teens. The story line to the 34-page “AIDS in the End Zone” was developed by students in the Department of Juvenile Justice school system. It’s about a new student who moves to a fictional S.C. town and wins the job as quarterback for the high school football team. As a way to get back at him, the spoiled, rich athlete he displaces at quarterback sets up the new guy with a young woman who only a few students know is HIV positive. Messages in the story address alcohol consumption, sexual abstinence, condom use, HIV testing and living with HIV/AIDS.
We in South Carolina can’t afford to bury our heads on this issue: In 2010, our state’s AIDS rate ranked eighth nationally. Columbia ranked sixth among metropolitan areas.
And it’s not enough to talk about HIV/AIDS alone; we must put it into context with the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in general, which the Institute of Medicine once called “the hidden epidemic.” Sexually transmitted diseases wreak substantial havoc of their own and must not be ignored, which is why April is STD Awareness Month.
Of the 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases that occur across the nation annually, half occur among youth. According to the CDC, young people ages 15-24 had four times the reported chlamydia and gonorrhea rates in 2011 as the total population. In 2011, South Carolina stood at No. 4 in chlamydia rates, No. 5 in gonorrhea rates and No. 12 in syphilis rates.
It’s terrible enough to have to deal with some of these STDs and the damage — and death — they can cause. But to compound matters, STDs help pave the way for HIV, significantly increasing the likelihood of transmission.
Be aware. Get tested. Change dangerous and careless behavior. That goes for youths and adults.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.