Only one-third of sexually active young adults and less than one-quarter of sexually active high schoolers have been tested for HIV, according to a new report.
While HIV is rare and only about 10,000 teens and young adults are diagnosed with the disease each year, testing is still essential. A full 44 percent of adolescents living with HIV are undiagnosed — the highest percentage of any age group.
“Teens are in a particularly important period of their lives for HIV testing and prevention,” Michelle Van Handel, a health scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and lead author of the study told The Huffington Post. And indeed, getting tested early and often sets young adults up life-long safe sex and disease prevention habits.
The report, which was published in the journal Pediatrics in January, analyzed data from two national surveys of high schoolers and young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. Each asked some version of the following question: “Have you ever been tested for HIV? Do not count tests you may have had as part of a blood donation.”
This last question speaks to a misperception about blood donation being a viable HIV screening strategy. According to Van Handel, people who substitute blood donation for screening in a clinical setting are missing out on a critical part of care: HIV prevention education.
Still, barriers keeping teens from getting tested do exist. Here are a few ways we can address them:
Most teens worry about privacy
Teens and young adults face unique barriers to HIV testing, including lack of access to confidential testing. “If you’re on your parents health insurance coverage you may not feel comfortable having an HIV test that’s going to show up your parents health insurance bill the next month,” Van Handel said.
For young adults of color, a larger percentage of whom don’t have a primary care physician, can be an addition hurdle to testing.
A troubling HIV risk factor
Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 make up almost two-thirds of reported cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in 2014, despite the fact that they only make up a small portion of the sexually active population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s important because the presence of a sexually transmitted disease increases one’s likelihood of contracting HIV.
Doctors need to change their approach
Although the CDC recommends at least one lifetime HIV screening for Americans between the ages of 13 and 64, and frequent testing for individuals at higher risk for contracting the disease, such as men who have sex with men, many doctors aren’t talking with their teenaged patients about sexual health during primary care visits.
According to a different study, published in Pediatrics in 2003, only 43 percent of female students and 26 percent of male students reported discussing sexually transmitted diseases, HIV or pregnancy during a primary care visit in the previous year.
“Adolescents are more likely to get tested if their physician recommends it,” Van Handel said. Doctors, she said, need to make it clear that HIV testing is a normal part of life.