HIV/AIDS Diagnoses on the Rise among Young

Aug 10, 2009

It all began when a handful of people came down with a strange form of pneumonia in 1981. These people died - but the AIDS virus lived on. Today HIV/AIDS infects 35 million people worldwide.

Approximately 1000 new cases of HIV/AIDS are diagnosed in Ohio every year. That number has remained stable for some time -- but increasingly more young people are becoming infected with the virus.

In 2007, about 20% of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Ohio were younger than 24 years old. That's a 60% increase from the 2003 number.

The increase implies more young people at risk of contracting HIV are engaging in unsafe sexual behavior. But why?

Howard Fradkin is a psychologist who specializes in HIV/AIDS counseling at the Columbus clinic Affirmations. He's one of those who say the increase is linked to abstinence only sexual education programs.

"In the time you're talking about the US government was actively promoting only one type of sexual education which was abstinence education only. I suspect that what we're seeing is the effect of lack of appropriate education," says Fradkin.

In 1997, the federal government announced it would give 1 billion dollars for sexual education programs that promote abstinence exclusively. Ohio was one of those states that accepted the funds.

That changed in 2007 however when Governor Strickland vetoed the federal money. A study mandated by the US Department of Health at the time demonstrated that abstinence-based courses did not discourage youth from having sex.

Medical Director and Assistant Health Commissioner at Columbus Public Health, Dr. LeMaile-Williams says if young people are going to have sex they should learn in school how to protect themselves and their partners.

"We can't ignore that sex is out there and is happening. And it's important that we try to talk to you people about sex and what happens when you have sex," says LeMaile-Williams.

Dr. Michael Para is a Professor of Infectious Diseases at Ohio State University. He describes another factor that might explain for the increase in young people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

"The treatment is so good. That's part of the problem - you don't see it as much so you think it's under control. You see Magic Johnson and he's fat and happy," says Para.

HIV attacks the body's white blood cells - hijacking them by becoming engrained in their DNA. White blood cells are like soldiers for the body's immune system. So as the virus multiplies, it slowly disables the body's ability to fight off infections.

"HIV basically is a virus that kills the immune system," says Para.

There's still no cure for HIV. All the medication does is slow down the virus. But, it works so well that this is what Dr. Para tells his patients.

"That the meds work so well that they'll probably die of a heart attack or something else," says Para.

It could sound like good news, but Para cautions that nothing is set in stone.

"Those meds have worked completely and have suppressed the virus for 13 years. Will the drugs started in 1996 be good in 2026? I don't know," says Para.

Para wants the younger generation to know that HIV marks a person for life. It's often considered a manageable condition today - like diabetes or high blood pressure - but it's nothing like catching the seasonal flue. HIV, he says, is a big deal.

"Because it changes your life. You can stay healthy with it, but the reality is if you want a sex partner you have to tell them. You know, you're a marked person," says Para.