Why Are We Neglecting Gen Z When it Comes to HIV Awareness?

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Gen Z and HIV Awareness

Generation Z is considered inclusive and diverse, but what about when it comes to HIV awareness?

41 % of HIV negative Gen Z respondents said they were either not at all informed or only somewhat informed about HIV, compared to 23% of HIV negative millennials. (MERK)

The fight against the stigma of AIDS has had faces in the public eye along with celebrities who have stood up in the fight against the stigma of HIV in the past, most because they were infected with HIV themselves.

In 1985 Ryan White a courageous thirteen-year old boy got the virus from a blood transfusion while treating his hemophilia. Although doctors had only given him 3 months to live, Ryan lived for 5 years. He was brave in his fight to return to an Indiana school that he was banned from. His fight to return to school received national attention and brought awareness of HIV and its stigma to the general public. (HRSA) Ryan White passed away on April 8 1990 at the age of 18. On August 18, 1990, by wide bipartisan margins, both houses of Congress passed the groundbreaking Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act (HRSA)

In 1991 Magic Johnson would announce that he was HIV positive and that would retire from basketball. This news received world-wide coverage at that time HIV was considered a death sentence this became a wake-up call for the public that anyone could contract the virus. Conversations about HIV and taking precautions to avoid the virus became a main-stream conversation in the American media and efforts in education, prevention as well as fear behavior shaming.  Over a span of 35 years, we have gone from discovering a new disease to determining the cause, the means of the spread, and how to treat it and we are on our way to a cure. (AMFAR) With our ever growing knowledge about the virus, the stigma of HIV remains the same.

HIV Stigma Among Young Adults

HIV stigma persists among young adults in the U.S. resulting in a negative impact on the treatment of young people with HIV. Despite no risk of HIV transmission through casual contact, more than one quarter of HIV-negative millennials said they have avoided hugging, talking to or being friends with someone with HIV, and 30% said they would prefer not to interact socially with someone with HIV. (MERCK) This tells us we must do more to educate about the virus. We are waiting too long to start these important conversations about how the virus is transmitted resulting in a lack of empathy for those infected and an unnecessary fear that can be prevented with appropriate education.

Positive strides in teaching the youth how to access care are being made with organizations such as Oregon School Based Health Alliance. Health GenYZ recently attended a youth advocate meeting presented by ORSBHA and heard from Colin Sanders a benefits navigator with Cascade Aids, an organization whose mission statement is “we support and empower all people living with or affected by HIV, reduce stigma and provide the LGBTQ+ community and beyond with compassionate healthcare”. (CAP) This interactive day-long Youth Action Council Summit provided an opportunity for students to connect with other youth leaders and learn more about improving access to health services in their communities.

The energy and passion of the students was felt throughout the different settings. They were able to hear from leaders and then engage with them in small groups learning how to take this knowledge and lead education efforts in their individual high schools. Generation Z has a hands-on approach seen as they worked together in person, side by side in their workshops.

By connecting with the youth and making them aware of organizations like Cascade Aids Project and leaders such as Colin providing them direction on accessing services, the ORSBHA is truly helping to empower students.  We still need more effective HIV education for our youth across the country.

More than two-thirds of HIV negative young adults 67% said that they were most concerned about HIV compared to other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), yet more than half (54%) did not report using condom and when asked how they acquired HIV and unfortunately more than 75% if millennials and 60% of Gen Z said they contracted HIV through sex without condoms. (MERCK)

Educational Engagement Through Entertainment Media

The South African version of Sesame Street program announced the launch of their new character, Kami, a girl who loves to dance, dresses with cool streetwear and is HIV positive. This is a powerful example of recent efforts in South Africa to fight stigma and educate young audiences on the facts and myths about HIV positive people in a country that has high levels of HIV and some children are born with the virus as the virus us passed from mother to child which is not always prevented due to limited access to the proper health services. (MITU)

In the US there are 1.1 million living with HIV and in 2017, over 38,000 people received an HIV diagnosis in the U.S. (CDC)  Georgia had the highest rate of new HIV infections of all the states in 2017, the year for which the most recent data is available. In the Atlanta metro area, the rate was even higher.

Georgia’s growing HIV crisis stands in contrast to gains made in far less developed parts of the world that have shown political will to fight the disease and have been aided by U.S. and global funding enabling them to expand HIV prevention and treatment services in places where they are needed most. (TIME) We need to take a look at other successful programs around the world and implement them with a community effort to combat the spread of the virus. Efforts such as the Sesame Street character may be the direction the US needs to take. The youth need to see HIV awareness and education in forms that they can relate to.  

By reaching out to the youth at a younger age through characters they admire we can grab children’s attention and provide education in kids about HIV before they become sexually active while helping them to have empathy for those who are HIV positive.

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