Despite public health guidelines and efforts to get the word out, few adolescents and young adults are being tested for HIV, reports a new study published online Jan. 19 in the journal Pediatrics. As a result, an estimated 50 percent of young Americans are infected with the AIDS-causing virus and don’t know it.
“We haven’t made the dent that we would like to have made,” study author Michelle Van Handel, MPH, a health scientist with the division of HIV/AIDS prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told HealthDay. In fact, she said, the HIV testing rate is actually lower among those aged 18 to 24 than for older people in the U.S.
In 2006, the CDC recommended that all people age 13 to 64 be tested for HIV. In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued the recommendation that all teens 16 to 18 be offered screening for HIV and AIDS. According to UPI, this controversial suggestion came as a result of findings that showed roughly 1 out of 4 new HIV infections occurred in people aged 13 to 24, with nearly half of them unaware that they were infected.
For the study, CDC researchers analyzed data from a 2005 to 2013 national health survey involving 14,500 high school students and a 2011 to 2013 survey involving 19,600 adults aged 18 to 24. They found that among the high school students, 22 percent of those who’d had sex said they’d been tested for HIV, an indication that testing rates had not changed over time. Among those students, findings also showed that males (17 percent) were less likely to get tested than females (27 percent).
Rates were a bit higher for the adult group, with 27 percent of the men tested and 40 percent of the women. Young adult black women had a particularly high rate at 60 percent in 2013.
“These results indicate that recommendations to screen all adolescents and young adults for HIV infection, regardless of risk, have not been widely implemented,” Van Handel and her colleagues wrote in the study.
As to why this is so, Van Handel offered several explanations, including the fact that some teens underestimate their HIV risk. She also noted a lack of access to healthcare or that high school students might be fearful of their parents finding out through their insurance carrier that they’d been tested.
In addition, Van Handel said that not all healthcare providers are aware of the CDC and AAP guidelines. “Research has shown that adolescents are more likely to get tested if their physician recommends it,” Van Handel said in a news release.
Ann Kurth, PhD, RN, dean of the Yale College of Nursing, told Reuters the study results highlight the need to get more teens and young adults screened. She pointed out that access, affordability and confidentiality are major hurdles for young people. “Access to anonymous testing can make a big difference for young people,” Kurth added in an email.
She also said that parents had a role to play in ensuring the sexual health of their children. She advised starting conversations at an early age before sexual activity begins.
“The main point for parents is to let your teen or child know that you are there to listen and to help, and not necessarily expect them to initiate the conversation,” Kurth said. “Adolescents who feel they can talk to a parent tend to have better statistics in terms of partner selection and protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.”