Dr. Benjamin Young: AIDS is still a concern
A recent The Washington Post headline read, “AIDS is a ‘forgotten epidemic'” – the words of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, speaking about HIV prevention and warning about complacency in reducing HIV infection.
These words give us much to think about as we recognize World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.
As a HIV specialist doctor, I have seen the impact of HIV/AIDS in Colorado for two decades. HIV/AIDS has changed dramatically since the first diagnoses of AIDS among gay men in the 1980s. In Colorado, more than 16,000 persons have been infected with HIV, and there have been over 5,000 deaths. As treatments have dramatically reduced rates of AIDS-related complications and deaths, it’s easy to forget that many remain at risk of getting infected. Indeed, while new infection rates decrease in southern Africa, rates in the United States continue to grow. Every year, over 500 Coloradans are diagnosed HIV+. We care for many of these persons every day in our medical center: black, white and Latino; gay and straight; men and women; young and old.
One in three new HIV infections in the United States are among young people. Why? Because the majority of the world’s youth are entering adulthood without the knowledge, power and tools they need to protect themselves from disease.
We must and can do better. Nearly half of American teens are sexually active; as a community we must demand that youth have information they need to protect their health – starting with non-judgmental education about sexuality and drug use as well as access to condoms and birth control.
We must acknowledge that one in five individuals living with HIV is unaware of their status. The Centers for Disease Control recommends HIV testing for everyone ages 13 to 64. Yet lack of information, fear, judgment, misconceptions and social stigma are just a few of the barriers that prevent people from getting tested; others mistakenly believe that they have been tested as part of an annual exam or physical.
Rocky Mountain CARES would like to remind the community that getting tested is not time consuming, complicated or painful. Most tests involve a simple finger pick, and results are available in less than 12 minutes. Getting tested is the first step to “Act Aware,” which is the theme for this year’s World AIDS Day. While a positive diagnosis can be scary at first, local organizations like ours have trained medical professionals who work to provide comprehensive, compassionate care free of stigma or discrimination.
To secure a healthy future for us all, we must invest in youth and act together as a community to increase awareness and normalize conversations around HIV. Lastly, we must never forget the many lives lost or those currently living with HIV/AIDS, which is why AIDS must never become a forgotten epidemic.
Dr. Benjamin Young is Medical Director of Rocky Mountain CARES and Head of Medical Affairs, Health Connections International in Amsterdam.
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