Saturday was World AIDS Day, a World Health Organization event designed to raise awareness about the ongoing world pandemic of HIV infection. This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pointing the spotlight on a worrisome trend in the United States the growing rate of HIV infection among youngsters.
You may remember that HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, was first identified in 1981. It is a virus that infects the immune system, resulting in weakened defenses against infections and certain types of cancer.
Before the advent of anti-viral treatments, infection with the virus invariably resulted in AIDS that frequently led to death. While there is neither a vaccine to prevent nor a treatment to cure HIV, many effective treatments have been developed to control the virus and prevent the development of AIDS.
However, despite the availability of effective anti-viral treatments, ongoing HIV infection persists at an epidemic rate both in this country and abroad. In the developing world, a major problem is access to medication. In the United States, a major factor is undiagnosed infection. Increasingly, this is a problem among adolescents and young adults.
The main risk factors for transmission of HIV infection are unprotected sex with an infected partner; the sharing of needles, syringes, or other materials used to inject illicit drugs; and birth to a mother infected with HIV.
The risk of transmission can be reduced not only by avoidance of risk behaviors or by taking appropriate precautions, but also by treatment of people infected with the virus. Of course, this requires recognition of the infection.
In its early stages, which can often last for years, HIV infection produces few symptoms or non-specific symptoms that may not be recognized. There are more than 1.1 million people infected with HIV in the U.S. and an about 56,000 new infections each year. This is the basis for the CDC recommendation, issued in 2010, for universal screening for HIV infection, among all people ages 18-64.
More recent data indicate that more than one in four new HIV infections occur among youths 13-24. This is a startling statistic and is the basis for the CDC call to action to better educate the young about the disease, including risk factors, risk reduction and routine testing.
The highest rate of HIV transmission is among gay and bisexual males, although heterosexual transmission accounts for transmission among 86 percent of females who become infected.
Reducing risk begins with HIV education among youngsters, including education about risk reduction. Given rates of transmission among youths, such education should be universal.
Testing for HIV among youngsters with high-risk behaviors is also important. Testing is simple, safe, accurate and readily available from local health-care providers. Testing is also confidential. In Colorado, minors may seek testing or treatment for sexually transmitted disease without the consent of a parent or guardian.
For people infected with HIV, there is hope. Many treatments exist to control the infection and prevent AIDS. Treatment also reduces the risk of transmission of the disease.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.