National Opinions

Commentary: Don't let guard down on fighting AIDS

With improved drugs, proper care and treatment, people with HIV are living longer and stronger lives while caring for themselves and others.

But even with this encouraging news, a dangerous trend is emerging when it comes to an often-ignored segment of the HIV and AIDS population: youth. As we approach World AIDS Day on Monday, statistics show more Americans between the ages of 13 to 24 are being affected by this deadly disease than ever before.

Most frustrating of all, the problem is generally preventable through changes in behavior, increased use of safer-sex practices, testing, basic health care and other forms of prevention.

Statistically, youth are catching up fast to other high-risk groups. In 2006, citing the most recent statistics available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that young people accounted for half of all new infections in the U.S.

Worldwide, women account for nearly half of all new HIV infections. And almost two-thirds of those are among young people, with infections among youth rising in almost every region.

More than 1 million Americans have HIV/AIDS. According to the CDC, the U.S. has the highest rate of teenage infection in the developed world. Every hour, two Americans between the ages of 13 and 24 contract HIV.

The face of AIDS is changing to include every race, gender and class in almost every country around the world. Despite increasing awareness over the years, we are still faced with staggering statistics and barriers that must be addressed.

This year alone, the CDC admitted underestimating HIV cases by 40 percent, meaning that there could be more than 9,000 American teens who have contracted the disease and don't even know it.

Without treatment or education, these teens will continue to transmit the virus to their partners.

Regularly testing pregnant women and at-risk youth for HIV and providing antiretroviral drugs if they are infected dramatically reduces the number of AIDS cases. This approach is already reducing the number of children being infected from birth. In 1992, 855 children in the U.S. developed AIDS. By 2005, only 57 children developed AIDS, a decline of 93 percent.

Preventing HIV is not complicated. Get tested as soon as you're sexually active. Don't use IV drugs or share needles. Abstain or practice safer sex. With preventative care, you and your health care provider can fight and manage this disease and protect children.

Most of all, get educated, and don't be shy about discussing these issues. It's better to talk about sensitive subjects with a doctor, nurse, friend or loved one than to let silence and complacency lead to infection.

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Dr. Sam Ho is executive vice president and chief medical officer working for UnitedHealthcare.