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Study: One-Third of American Teens Unaware HIV Is Sexually Transmitted

Study: One-Third of American Teens Unaware HIV Is Sexually Transmitted

The rate of new HIV infections among American teens has been on the rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

So when we see comments like the one from the anonymous student from Missouri who claims to have had condomless sex with Michael Johnson (a college wrestler in Missouri now facing criminal charges on allegations he exposed some to the virus, and infected one person), we are surprised. In an outstanding piece of journalism exploring the intersectionality of race, HIV and sexual desires, BuzzFeed reporter Steven Thrasher quotes the anonymous student as saying he had condomless sex with the wrestler, and others, because he could tell they were clean — "sometimes by just looking at them."

But a new study from MAC AIDS Fund may shed some important light on why this is happening. The study of 1,039 American youth ages 12-17 found that 33 percent reported not being aware that HIV is a sexually transmitted disease. Just as important, 88 percent reported believing they were not at risk for acquiring HIV. 

As for stigma, which is likely driving HIV criminal prosecutions — the construction that people with HIV somehow have a higher burden to prevent HIV transmission than those who are HIV status unknown — the study provides some insight there as well. The study found half of the participants reported being more afraid of getting HIV than cancer, drug or alcohol addiciton, or obesity. On top of that, only half report they would treat a friend with HIV "normally" while substantial minorities report they wouldn't share a drink with an HIV-positive friend (24 percent) or touch them (13 percent). 

But there is some good news in this study. The youth report they are open to discussing HIV and would welcome such conversations with parents, mentors, or teachers. Of course, for such conversations to be effective, Americans will have to get a better general grasp on HIV than they currently have. In 2012, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 27 percent of Americans thought HIV could be transmitted by sharing a drinking a glass; 17 percent thought a toilet seat could spread the infection; and 11 percent thought they could get it by sharing a swimming pool with an HIV positive person.

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