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HIV: What You Should Be Learning

By , 17, Staff Writer Originally Published: April 23, 2021 Revised: May 7, 2021

What did you learn about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in sex ed class? If you’re like many teens, the answer may unfortunately be “not much.” Sex education classes often cover some material about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV. But there is still so much about HIV that isn’t taught. And unfortunately, there is often shame and stigma when it comes to talking about it. While there have been huge advances in the prevention and treatment of HIV, young people are still contracting it, and it’s important we’re educated about it.

Learning the Facts

In school, I learned that HIV is preventable, but if I contracted it, I would never be able to live my life “normally.” I was curious what other teens were learning (and not learning) about HIV. Liza, 19, of Lewisburg, PA, says she learned “that it’s spread though sex and blood and that it is deadly.” Prior to working at Sex, Etc., I was also under the impression that HIV always turns into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and that it’s a death sentence. While HIV is spread through some bodily fluids, like semen and blood, having HIV is not a death sentence.

“I wish we were taught more about people who have HIV and how they’re living as normal human beings,” says Lily, 17, of Trenton, NJ. “People live with HIV/AIDS and are happy, content people.” Current HIV treatments help people live long, healthy lives. But people may not be learning this in school when fear tactics are used in the classroom instead of more thorough discussions about the reality of HIV prevention, testing and treatment.

Some people may also think they aren’t at risk for HIV. But “in 2018, youth aged 13 to 24 made up 21 percent of the 37,832 new HIV diagnoses in the United States and dependent areas,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All the more reason that young people need to know about HIV. The CDC suggests that young people have access to information and tools to make healthy decisions and reduce the risk for getting HIV and that they get treatment and stay in care if they have HIV.

It’s so important that teens learn the facts about HIV. This can help reduce misconceptions and stigma, normalize testing and promote communication between partners.

HIV Prevention Options

While most teens have heard of condoms, many don’t know about HIV prevention measures like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). “I’ve heard about PrEP on TV in commercials,” says Marley, 16, of Lawrenceville, NJ. But most of the teens I spoke with had not heard of them, and no one said they had heard about PrEP and PEP in sex ed class.

PrEP is a pill taken daily to reduce the chances of contracting HIV for those at high risk. If taken as prescribed, it can reduce the risk by 99 percent. It is frequently covered by insurance, and if not, there are often other forms of financial assistance available.

There is also PEP, which is medication taken for 28 days after exposure—or possible exposure—to HIV. PEP is only used in case of emergency and must be started within 72 hours after exposure. It can be used if you aren’t on PrEP or if you accidentally miss doses of PrEP.

We should be aware of the options we have when it comes to prevention. Talking to a health care provider to find out more is always a good idea. In the meantime, condoms continue to be highly effective at preventing HIV when used properly.

HIV Does Not Always Lead to AIDS

Teens report hearing myths and misperceptions about HIV. In addition to inaccuracies like “it can be passed through touch or a toilet seat,” Julia, 19, of Gambier, OH, says she has also heard “that there isn’t a difference between AIDS and HIV.” But did you know that actually, many people with HIV never reach the advanced stage known as AIDS?

While there is no cure for HIV, it can be controlled. Due to treatment called antiretroviral therapy (ART), HIV no longer means death. If taken correctly, ART medication can help someone with HIV remain healthy. It’s even possible to reduce viral load—the amount of virus in the blood—to the point where it’s undetectable. This means HIV won’t show up in blood tests and also that you have effectively no risk of passing HIV to another person through sex. In the past, HIV would most likely progress to AIDS. But now, with the help of ART, this is preventable.

Communicating With Partners

For some, communication about HIV prevention and safer sex can feel intimidating or scary. Communication in general is important, but even more so when it comes to discussions about relationships, sex and STD testing! “If it’s not something we can talk about,” says Julia, “then we shouldn’t be doing anything sexual.”

Sadly, not all teens feel comfortable communicating with partners about safer sex. “I haven’t developed a strong enough relationship with my partners in the past in which I felt comfortable bringing this up,” says Max, 17, of Lawrenceville, NJ. “I’m working on becoming confident…. I can sometimes focus too much on others’ well-being, and I have to look after myself, too.” I am sure that Max is not the only one who has struggled with this. This is one more reason why it’s important that we learn about communicating with partners in sex education classes.

Just Say Yes to Testing

Another important thing to communicate with partners about is getting tested for STDs, including HIV. According to 2017 data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, just nine percent of U.S. high school students had been tested for HIV. This low percentage means that teens are not learning enough about the importance of getting tested. It could also mean that there are teens with undiagnosed HIV.
If you do contract HIV, you may not show any symptoms for years. This is why it’s so important to get tested and know for sure. This helps prevent spreading the virus to sexual partners and also enables you to be proactive and start treatment to help keep yourself healthy if you are positive. Sometimes, HIV testing can spark anxiety. While it can be nerve-wracking, it’s better to know your status so you can take action as needed.

When it comes to HIV, many of us may not be taught enough about prevention, how to communicate with partners about safer sex, getting tested and treatment. But we have the right to know the truth and not live in fear. Demand better sex education at your school. Stigma doesn’t have to keep our generation uninformed and unable to make healthy decisions for ourselves.

Check out our Communication Tool to learn how you can start important conversations with your partner about getting tested for HIV. Use our Clinic Finder o find a health center near you that does HIV testing.

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