On World AIDS Day, a new understanding of an old problem

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Saturday is the 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day, and on Melissa Harris-Perry, actress, author, and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph had this to say about why we need to remain vigilant in the battle against AIDS:

“As I cross this country talking about AIDS, sexual health and well-being, Melissa I’m shocked at how many people cannot talk about sex. How many parents in this new millennium cannot figure out how to have a sex conversation in an age appropriate way with their children? People continue to act like it doesn’t happen, and I’m shocked. And we’ve got to figure out how to talk about this. Why is it parents don’t want schools to talk about sex if they’re not going to talk about sex in their own home. If you give young people the proper information, you would be shocked at the much better choices they would make for themselves and their sexual well-being.”


Information is key–the lack of data and other factors may be one of the main reasons why young people age 13-24 make up over 25% of the new HIV infections in the United States. According to a new Center for Disease Control report, in 2010 youths made up 25.7% of new HIV infections. Let’s break those numbers down even further along racial lines.

  • 57.4% of those new infections were African-Americans
  • 19.6% were Latino
  • 19.5% were white


To boot, of the nearly 7% of youth infected with HIV in 2009, well over half of them weren’t aware that they were HIV-positive.

But let’s be careful that we don’t rush to judgment because blame is never the right answer and only serves to further alienate our young people. In the ‘80s, we were all learning on a day-by-day basis just what the disease entailed. It’s fair to say that at that time we shared a collective ignorance. However, ignorance cannot be used as an excuse now, or can it?

The Guttmacher Institute reports:

  • 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education
  • 33 states and the District of Columbia mandate HIV education
  • 37 states require information on abstinence be provided


The first thing that you should notice about the above is that none of those numbers come anywhere close to the 50 states that make up the United States. If kids are kept in the dark and not given the proper knowledge about their bodies, and therefore aren’t able to make informed choices, which way should the pendulum of blame swing?

Melissa Harris-Perry guest Sonia Rastogi of the advocacy group Positive Women’s Network had this to say about the connection between education and prevention:

“When we talk about prevention it’s just really interesting to see how our own discomforts, how our own stigmas, end up filtering up to this institutional level and in this case we’re talking about sex education in the schools. I’m going to go back to that metaphor that I use of the tools and the prevention tool box, and we need to have sex education that is not only OK here’s how HIV is transmitted but also what does a healthy relationship look like? How does that negotiation really happen? And in addition to that, what are the actual tools that people men and women can use in order to protect themselves.”


Rastogi’s organization also looks at the challenges young women face when it comes to HIV and AIDS because violence and trauma not only make them more susceptible to getting HIV, they can also lead to poorer health outcomes.

Add to the equation the stigma that HIV and AIDS still carries and it’s no wonder there’s reluctance by young people to want to know their status. Between 1987 and 2009, 450 people were prosecuted for “sexual or non-sexual” HIV exposure of transmission. While there are certainly instances when people knowingly infected another person, states where there are HIV-specific laws have lowered evidentiary criteria for intent and may mandate disclosure.

What the above shows is that there are intersectional factors that can further our understanding of why our youth continue to acquire HIV. A lack of comprehensive sex education and a prevailing stigma associated with HIV and AIDS all work in concert with violence and trauma to make the disease even more deadly than it is already. We can and must do better.

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On World AIDS Day, a new understanding of an old problem

Updated