The Human Rights Campaign Foundation has released a comprehensive guide designed for college administrators, staff, and students on how best to improve HIV prevention efforts on college campuses.
The release of the guide coincides with National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day, which seeks to raise awareness about the risk of HIV infection among those under the age of 24. Despite HIV infection rates in the United States being on the decline, youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities continue to remain at high risk of HIV, with 80 percent of new diagnoses occurring in between the ages of 20 and 24.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than half of all youth with HIV are unaware of their status, due, in part to inadequate educational resources for young people. This subsequently puts others at risk of acquiring the virus.
“The path toward ending the HIV and AIDS epidemic goes right through America’s colleges and universities,” Mary Beth Maxwell, HRC’s Senior Vice President for Programs, Research, and Training, said in a statement. “Our colleges and universities are not just tasked with educating our nation’s students, but also protecting the health and wellbeing of their student body and campus community. By taking the steps necessary to provide equitable treatment, expand access to care and offer educational resources on HIV, students and administrators alike can help bring our world one step closer to an AIDS-free generation.”
Ashland Johnson, HRC’s Director of Public Education and Research, says that youth are often at higher risk of contracting HIV because they are more likely to engage in higher-risk sexual behavior, including not using condoms, sleeping with multiple partners, and experimenting with drugs or alcohol, which decreases inhibition and increases one’s chance of engaging in unprotected or higher-risk sexual behaviors.
Unfortunately, the CDC reports that, between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of schools in which students are required to receive instruction on HIV prevention decreased from 64% to 41%. As such, the guide makes several recommendations on how colleges can reverse these trends by providing comprehensive sex education programs, supporting initiatives aimed at reducing transmission of HIV, and partnering with LGBTQ resource center and clubs to help carry out some of those initiatives.
“With this report, we wanted to highlight places where we’re seeing increases in HIV rates. On average, we’re seeing that numbers are decreasing or declining,” says Johnson. “However, when it comes to youth, those numbers are increasing. … So we wanted to create a resource for campus administrators to make them aware of the risk, and also give them actionable items that they can do to intervene.”
Johnson adds that youth are also less likely to get tested for or talk about HIV on a regular basis, which can exacerbate the problem. Some may try to hide their sexual activity from their parents, meaning it’s harder to arrange for regular checkups with their primary care physician or an area clinic that does testing. Lastly, access to PrEP, for those who are HIV-negative, or antiretrovirals, for those who are HIV-positive and need to reduce their viral loads to ensure they do not pass on the virus, can be cost-prohibitive.
“This guide is targeting administrators, like, what can they do, what interventions can they put in place that mimic things they are already doing but adding in the HIV awareness component. So first, we wanted to make sure people knew the statistics, because that is a big issue with college students: they don’t think they’re at risk for HIV,” says Johnson. “The second thing is to have a policy in place. … Also, making sex ed important. For example, when parents come up for orientation week, that’s an easy time to do a discussion about HIV awareness. So we’re looking at what can they do with the resources they have, but just integrating in a conversation about HIV, which makes it less stigmatized.”
She adds that administrators can often be unaware of their local nondiscrimination laws with respect to sexual orientation or HIV status, and should adopt policies that either match or exceed the legal protections currently in place for such groups.
Additionally, campuses need to emphasize confidentiality and privacy when offering services such as HIV/STI testing. While colleges are required to report infections to local health departments, administrators can put in place safeguards to ensure that information cannot be disseminated and used to target people for discrimination — including in housing — just as they would have safeguards at the campus health center to ensure they’re protecting people’s other private medical information, in compliance with HIPAA.
Johnson also notes that it is crucial that campus staff are aware of the risk that HIV poses to all students, and not just to traditionally-affected groups, such as men who have sex with other men, so they can provide the appropriate support needed to combat HIV transmissions without ignoring segments of the populace based on stereotypes.
“It’s about safety, it’s about education. It’s not about sexual orientation,” she says. “If we’re going to protect all of our youth, including our LGBT youth, what we need is these things implemented on all campuses.”
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