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Americans between the ages of 13 and 24 are becoming infected with HIV at the rate of two people per hour. Youths under age 25 represent about half of all new HIV infections. The risk is high among young people because they are often more sexually active than older adults. This is why doctors, public health agencies, and others urge youths to use condoms during every sexual encounter. Condoms will protect youths against HIV and many other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Knowledge is power, and knowledge about safe sexual behavior can save lives. So if you are young or sexually active, here are some facts you need to know, presented by the Office of National AIDS Policy at the White House:
• AIDS is not over. Scientists believe that there have been 40,000 new HIV infections in the United States every year for the last several years, and that half of those being infected are young people between the ages of 13 and 24.
• You won't know until you are tested. Most young people who are already HIV-infected don't know it, and the vast majority of HIV-infected youth do not receive adequate medical care.
• Medicine can help. For many young people infected with HIV, new medical treatments could lead to long, productive lives. To make this a reality, they need youth-friendly access to HIV counseling and testing, medical care (including mental health care), and other support services.
• Young people are at high risk of AIDS. More than 123,000 young adults in the United States have developed AIDS in their twenties, according to surveillance data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
• Teens have sex. By 12th grade, 65% of American youth are sexually active, and one in five has had four or more sexual partners.
• STDs are common among teens. Each year, three million adolescents contract sexually transmitted diseases. That's about one in four sexually experienced teens. Of the 12 million Americans with STDs, about two-thirds are young people under age 25. These statistics indicate that many adolescents are engaging in unprotected sex — behavior that places them at risk for HIV infection.
Source: Office of National AIDS Policy, Washington, DC.
• Drugs and alcohol play a role. About 25% of U.S. high school students who have had sex said they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs (including marijuana and other illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and low-cost inhalants like gasoline, spray paint, and glue) the last time they had sex. Also, an estimated 1.5 million Americans use cocaine, and about half of them are age 25 or younger. The use of crack has more than doubled among those 12-17 years old since 1991.
• Binge drinking is a problem. Binge drinking was reported recently by 31% of high school students. Among young people contacted at home, 38% of those 18-25 years old and almost 46% of those 21 years old reported binge drinking. The definition of binge drinking is having at least five drinks on the same occasion within the last month.
• Girls are at greater risk now. More females than males are now being diagnosed with HIV in the 13-19 age group. In this group, 63% of the 828 HIV infections reported last year were among females. In the next oldest group, 20-24-year-olds, women represent about 44% of the 2,386 HIV infections reported in 1999.
• Women from the South and the Northeast have high risk. In disadvantaged youth entering the Job Corps, young women from the South and Northeast had the highest HIV infection rates. Prevalences of up to one per 100 were found, with the highest rates in the District of Columbia, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, and Connecticut.
• Gay and bisexual youths also at high risk. At least half of the HIV infections reported in 1999 among young men ages 13-24 resulted from exposure to the virus through sex with other men. Young, urban men who have sex with men show alarming rates of HIV infection — just over 7% — with higher rates among African-Americans, Latinos, and those of mixed race than among whites.
• Blacks and Hispanics are at greatest risk. African-Americans and Hispanics each make up about 15% of U.S. teenagers. However, African-Americans account for 49% of the 3,725 AIDS cases ever reported among those ages 13-19 and 67% of the 4,796 HIV infections reported to date in this age group. Hispanics represent 20% of AIDS cases among teens.
• STD treatment helps prevent HIV. When you are treated for an STD, you reduce the risk of HIV infection, because the open sores and lesions caused by the STD will be healed. These sores make it more likely that if you have sexual intercourse with a person who has HIV, you will contract the virus from that person.
• Parental consent is not required for testing. Your parent does not need to know that you are being tested for HIV, and these tests are kept strictly confidential. No one but you and your doctor or nurse will know the results.
• If positive, medical treatment is essential. New HIV treatments have produced dramatic reductions in the number of deaths from AIDS. Among those 15-24 years of age, the number of deaths in 1998 was 53% less than in 1996.
• If you have questions, call a free hotline. The National AIDS Hotline at 1-800-342-2437 is a free source of answers to all of your basic health questions. The hotline can refer you to services and to organizations that will have more in-depth information.