Reprinted from Monterey County Weekly

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

In 1981, a new unknown illness started to sweep across the nation and no community was spared, including our own in Monterey County. From its first discovery until the mid-1990s, an HIV diagnosis carried with it the devastating reality that the odds of surviving were not good. Not good at all. When people contracted the disease, their existences changed dramatically, and new life-journeys with HIV took them in different directions than planned.

The same can be said of anyone who has ever known or loved someone with HIV/AIDS – our life-journeys changed forever, too. Few have been left untouched.

Nonetheless, we came together in the face of fear and ignorance to support the ones we loved, and each other. Eventually, resources and science mobilized and sought ways to combat HIV/AIDS, and we saw development of new and effective HIV medications in the 1990s. The last 11 years have seen medical advances that now greatly stabilize the health of people living with HIV/AIDS. Though this is certainly something to celebrate, we can’t forget the fact that HIV/AIDS remains deadly.

Today, educating individuals still remains our greatest defense. In the U.S., investments in HIV prevention have paid off. The rate of new HIV infections in the U.S. has slowed from more than 150,000 in the mid-1980s to 55,000-58,500 per year now. Despite that substantial decline, the rate of new infections is still too high – so our journey in fighting the disease continues, making education, prevention and testing as important as ever.

Domestically, despite widespread knowledge on how the disease is transmitted, stigma against discussing safe-sex practices continues to contribute to the epidemic. African-Americans and Latinos are currently the ethnic groups most at risk of new infection, representing 64 percent of new cases.

YOUNG ADULTS AND TEENS BETWEEN 13 AND 29 REPRESENT 39 PERCENT OF NEW HIV INFECTIONS.

As treatments have become more effective, fears of infection have waned, particularly among the young, who have no collective memory of the loss and grieving AIDS caused in the 1980s. Every hour, two young people in the U.S. become newly infected with HIV. Currently, young adults and teens between 13 and 29 represent 39 percent of new HIV infections, the largest share of any age group. Not surprisingly, sexual behavior is the primary mode of HIV transmission among young people, as adolescence marks a period of sexual exploration.

According to a 2009 survey, 46 percent of all high school students have engaged in sexual intercourse. Alarmingly, studies have documented low condom use among adolescents, particularly among Latino and African-American youth. In 2009, 34 percent of sexually active adolescents in the U.S. reported that they did not use a condom the last time they had sex. Because American youth are growing up at a time when AIDS is considered to be treatable and complacency is widespread, young people may be more likely to have misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, including modes of transmission and preventive measures. This problem may be compounded by inaccuracies in abstinence-only curricula used by some school systems.

The battle of prevention extends to our own backyard and requires strong partnerships if we are to continue to hold the line against the disease. Central Coast HIV/AIDS Services has long partnered with CSUMB’s Service Learning Program to provide compassionate and caring volunteers to assist with outreach to high-risk populations. CCHAS also partners with CSUMB’s Campus Health Center, offering HIV testing for students, staff and faculty. Together with partners like CSUMB, the Monterey County Health Department, Natividad Immunology Division Outpatient, CHOMP Outpatient Immunology Services and others, we have helped hundreds of local people living with HIV/AIDS every year with housing assistance and supportive services. We reach thousands more through education, prevention and early testing.

World AIDS Day is Dec. 1 and was first celebrated in 1988. It is a day of remembrance for the now 30 million who have fallen victim to the illness, including brothers and sisters of our own community, and an annual reminder to continue to raise awareness and work toward a cure for the now 34 million living HIV-positive worldwide.

On this, the 31st commemoration of HIV/AIDS, we invite you to honor loved ones gone but never forgotten, to embrace those who still need our help now, and to maintain hope with us for the day when a cure is found. It’s just a matter of time.

TOM MELVILLE is executive director of Central Coast HIV/AIDS Services (www.cchas.org). Caroline Haskell oversees Health and Wellness Services at California State University Monterey Bay (health.csumb.edu).