Today is National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Advocates across the country will dedicate the day to raising awareness about HIV risk among adolescents, teens and young adults, and call attention to the high rates of HIV among these groups.
DC Appleseed has been working on HIV/AIDS issues for over a decade. Since we issued our report on the District’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 2005, we have seen progress in key areas and a 40% decrease in new infections District-wide. In subsequent report cards, including our most recent Ninth Report Card, we have measured progress in the usual tools of prevention: condoms, testing, sexual health education and other social determinants of health like housing. The District does have robust prevention and education programs, as well as evidence-based, progressive laws and policies that impact youth. A minor can access HIV testing, care and condoms, all of which may be provided in their own high school’s health center.
But despite these improvements, the epidemic in D.C. is not over. And, alarmingly, it is getting younger. Not only did 680 DC residents receive a new HIV diagnosis in 2012, but a full third of new cases were diagnosed in 13-29-year-olds. D.C. also has the highest rates of HIV, syphilis and gonorrhea of all states in the country.
We are especially concerned about a lack of implementation and oversight of the Healthy Schools Act, which mandates sexual health education in all D.C. schools. From 2012 to 2014, a portion of the DC CAS standardized test measured students’ knowledge about health and disease, including HIV. However, the results of the tests were not published by OSSE in a way that allowed advocates or parents to identify whether and which schools – particularly charter schools – were providing these lessons with any success. Even more disappointingly, as the standardized test changed in the District in 2015, the future of the health education assessment is unclear.
It is time to examine the status quo and commit to doing better. Through thirty years of the HIV epidemic, one of the many lessons advocates and policymakers have learned is that “it takes a village” to make meaningful change. This work must be done not only by parents and educators who interact with youth daily, but also by government officials and healthcare providers who need to adapt to be savvy about serving adolescents, teens and young adults. The community, in partnership with young people themselves, must respond, retool and recommit to reverse the younger trend of HIV diagnoses. Young people are at risk and our progress in fighting the epidemic thus far is at risk. Both are unacceptable. And DC Appleseed is committed to finding solutions.