Lawrence Stallworth II, 20, of Cleveland can attest that they’re not. He learned he was infected with HIV at age 17, when he was a high-school senior, after a hospitalization. A black gay man, he’s among one of the nation’s highest-risk groups.
He’s now an Ohio AIDS activist who works to teach young people that they need to protect themselves, and how.
“I want people to have the tools to keep themselves safe,” said Stallworth, who at this week’s AIDS conference is working with the nonprofit Advocates for Youth to increase young people’s awareness of an epidemic that in the U.S., today gets little publicity.
Part of that involves our society getting “better at being more open about being able to talk about sex,” Stallworth added. “It’s still a taboo issue.”
Indeed, at this week’s conference, the world’s largest AIDS meeting, young gay men are emerging as a population in special danger from rising HIV infections worldwide, and young black gay men especially in the U.S.
Black gay and bisexual men account for 1 in 500 Americans but 1 in 4 new HIV infections. The odds that a black man who has sex becomes infected rise from 1 in 4 at age 25 to a stunning 60 percent by age 40, said Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute.
But they’re not the only ones at risk. The CDC recommends that everyone in the U.S. ages 13 to 65 be tested for HIV at least once. Those at increased risk — such as people who have multiple sex partners or men who have sex with men — should be tested more frequently, at least once a year.
In South Carolina, 18-year-old Quinandria Lee offers an example of the safe sex practices that CDC says more young people should adopt.
Lee was frustrated at her school’s abstinence-only focus. She learned about both male and female condoms from the South Carolina Contraceptive Campaign, and last year her principal allowed her to teach her classmates about them. Condoms are the only contraceptive that also protect against HIV infection.
But Lee credits her mother’s frank talk about sex with this key protective step: Lee persuaded her boyfriend to go with her to a clinic where both got a clean bill of health before they ever had sex. Still, they use a condom every time.
“It’s hard,” she said of that get-tested conversation. But “you can’t be too sure.”
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