By Marie Haka
Although HIV infection rates have somewhat stabilized in America, the prevalence of infection for youth, men who have sex with men, and people of color remain disproportionately high.
Susan Pratte, the director of education and prevention at the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP), points to risky behavior such as sex without a condom and needle sharing as two main sources of HIV infection.
“Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise in young people across the nation, and the behavior associated with this also puts youth at a higher risk for HIV,” Pratte said.
According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), about one in every 500 college students is infected with HIV.
Jane Bogart, the coordinator of UC Santa Cruz’s SHOP (Student Health Outreach and Promotion) program, says that she and her colleagues have noticed trends in the epicenters, such as San Francisco and New York City, which suggest that “HIV rates are rising among young people under thirty, particularly men who have sex with men and young people of color.”
Pratte said there are a number of reasons why youth are engaging in more risky behaviors.
“A generation ago, AIDS decimated whole communities and the disease was very visible; now antiviral drugs are helping people live longer and the disease is less visible,” she said. “Some people have forgotten that they are still at risk.”
Jesus Pizano, a case manager at SCAP, said that education and media also influence youth behavior.
“This generation has been bombarded by sexuality through the media, but at the same time are often denied the tools with which to protect themselves,” he said. “There is a huge need for education.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, some of the highest STI rates in the country are those “among young people, especially young people of minority races and ethnicities.”
The reason for these trends remains complicated and unclear.
“The higher incidence of HIV/AIDS among communities of color is multi-causal,” Pratte said.
The CDC suggests that socioeconomic problems related to poverty, such as lack of education, unemployment, inadequate health insurance, and limited access to health care may directly or indirectly increase the risk of HIV infection. Comparably, these issues have long plagued many communities of color.
The CDC also notes that while infection rates among men who have sex with men decreased in the 1990s, recent data suggests they might be on the rise again.
“Young queer people are at an even higher risk because they are often shamed into the closet,” said Pratte, adding that this may be the result of homophobia or sex education programs that do not address the needs of non-straight youth.
While there may be a disproportionate rate of HIV infection among the aforementioned groups, Alicia Sebastian, the volunteer/staff support manager at SCAP explained that “it is not about identity, it is about behavior.”
“Whatever your identity, if you engage in high-risk behavior such as unprotected sex or sharing needles, you are in danger of becoming infected with HIV and other STIs,” she said.
It is important to remember this, especially as the CDC estimates that about 25 percent of people in the U.S. infected with HIV do not know that they have it.
_Free and confidential HIV testing is offered every Thursday from 5-7 p.m. at the Cantu Queer Center on campus. For more information visit queer.ucsc.edu._