When I was in college during the first years of the AIDS epidemic, I assumed that by the time I had a child, all kids would be taught about HIV in school. In the past 20 years, lots of evidence shows how HIV education helps young people make healthy decisions including delaying sex and using condoms when they do have sex. So, it is extremely frustrating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that the percentage of students nationwide being taught about HIV/AIDS has fallen by eight percent over the past 14 years.
This month there’s been a lot of focus on the topic of HIV/AIDS. July marked the inaugural observance of National HIV Awareness Month, and this week, Washington, DC, played host to the 19th International AIDS Conference, which draws healthcare providers, researchers, and activists from across the globe to share new findings and strategize about the best way to prevent new infections and provide effective treatment to people with HIV. While much progress has been made, 50,000 people in the U.S. are still infected with HIV every year despite the fact that we know what kind of prevention education people need to help them avoid infection.
The most common way that adults and teens in the U.S. contract HIV is through sex. That fact may come as little surprise, but when you consider that one-third of high-school-age teens are sexually active, it brings into sharp focus the serious risk that uninformed teens face for contracting HIV. Anyone who’s not convinced of the urgent need to address those risks should consider this: A new CDC report shows that while 15- to 29-year-olds account for only 21 percent of the population, they represent 39 percent of all new HIV infections.
The report also shared some good news — condom use among African-American youth has increased substantially. Unfortunately, we’ve stopped making progress towards reducing HIV risk behaviors among other groups of teens. The best way for a sexually active person to avoid contracting HIV is by using condoms. Still, only 60 percent of sexually active high school students nationwide used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse.
Currently, 90 percent of parents believe that high school sex ed programs should cover HIV/AIDS, including talking about condoms. Frankly, I can’t remember the last time in our increasingly divisive culture that 90 percent of people in the U.S. agreed on any topic! But despite parents’ wishes, just 33 states and the District of Columbia currently mandate HIV education, and of those, only 12 require that it be medically accurate! As parents, voters, and taxpayers we should demand that our lawmakers and schools allocate resources for effective HIV education and prevention.
There’s also work we can do at home to better arm our kids with the information they need to stay healthy. Parents are a critical influence on our teens’ sexual health. Research shows that teens who report having strong relationships with their parents are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners, and are more likely to use condoms when they do have sex. But it means that we also have to be willing to have the hard conversations with our kids — particularly as they move toward high school age when most young people will initiate sexual activity.
Having the conversations we need to have with our teens may not always be comfortable. It’s not easy to talk about things like using condoms. But if we don’t, who will?
Leslie Kantor is the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.