Nearly 30 years after the first diagnoses of AIDS, more than one million people in the United States are infected with HIV today, with an additional 50,000 people estimated to become infected every year. Even more alarming is the rate of the millennial generation contracting HIV, which consists of twenty-six percent of newly infected people. In an age with information so readily available, it is concerning that the highest infection rate is amongst the ones who have the most access to information.
With the topic of an AIDS Free Generation as the theme of this year’s World AIDS Day, we sat down with Dr. Perry N. Halkitis, Director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies at New York University and author of ‘The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience’ Halkitis to discuss how we can become an AIDS Free Generation and the biggest challenges that Millennials are facing toward reaching that goal.
The Millennials are the first generation to never know a world without HIV. Growing up in a world with treatments to inhibit HIV and prolong the life of those infected, they do not understand the devastation caused by AIDS in the 80s and early 90s. Because of advances in medicine, they no longer see the volume of people dying as in the past. This makes it ”very difficult for them to recognize that the disease is very much present in our lives still and there is no sign of it going away” according to Dr. Perry Halkitis. One in every six gay men who have HIV is unaware they have it. ”Despite the fact we are in a much better place in fighting this disease, we are still in a country with 50,000 new infections a year. Adolescent and young adults need to be as careful as my generation” Making sure that the message gets out to this generation is essential. With so many changes in technology and social media, it’s a challenge to reach the youth on their platforms.
Turvada, is a medication used to treat HIV. Recently the drugs has been shown to reduce the risk of contracting HIV in people who do not yet have it, but are at substantial risk. When used this way this prevention approach is known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). According to Dr. Halkitis, “If you take the drug every day, and adhere to it, it is highly protective in preventing HIV. But it is not without its limitations and its own demands.” PrEP requires working very closely with your physician, including getting blood work and monitoring your overall health. It also requires daily dosing, which makes it very challenging to adhere to. It also does not prevent other sexually transmitted diseases. The other problem is that the drug is not getting into the hands of those who really need it. In a recent study at the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies at New York University found that out of 200 young gay men surveyed between 22-23 years old, 25% of them never even heard of PReP and only 4% have used it.
Along with PReP, it is also essential that the clinics, doctors and even schools continue to educate young men (and women) that condom use is still a major preventive measure for HIV/AIDS. “The message is still there but not as loud and clear as it used to be”
The LGBT movement continues to face challenges with regard to HIV/AIDS. People living with HIV have higher rates of being uninsured, are more likely to face barriers in accessing medical care, and often experience higher rates of stigma and discrimination than other groups. According to Dr. Halkitis “Many health problems are directed by social inequalities.” Structural changes in equal rights are very beneficial in regards to benefits in health. “When you equalize the playing field… it actually reduces the health problems,” he explains. “In the long run, it will have a more beneficial effect.” When young men know that it is okay to be homosexual, there is a reduction in the risky behaviors that can result in contracting HIV.
In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address he stated, “The promise of an AIDS‐free generation… is within our reach.” By focusing on awareness, prevention and equality, we can work effectively towards reaching that goal.