Empowering Today’s Youth through Comprehensive Sexual Education

Content From: Harold J. Phillips, MRP, Senior HIV Advisor and Chief Operating Officer for Ending the HIV Epidemic, Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Published: April 08, 20213 min read

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National Youth HIV + AIDS Awareness Day

Youth deserve access to comprehensive sexual health education. National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NYHAAD) is an opportunity to work together to make this a reality. By educating youth about the basics of HIV, how to protect themselves, find testing, treatment and care services, and confront HIV stigma in their communities, we are empowering them to take an active role in ending the HIV epidemic for future generations.

Today’s youth have many of the same hopes and dreams as previous generations. But we must also recognize they are distinct in many ways too. Their widespread passion for advocacy and social change sets them apart. They also face unique challenges and barriers when it comes to achieving those dreams. 

In 2018, youth aged 13 to 24 made up 21% of the 37,832 new HIV diagnoses in the United States and dependent areas. Most new youth diagnoses were among gay, bisexual men, and men who have sex with men (MSM). Most of these new diagnoses occurred among young Black and Latinx MSM. Yet, in 2018, youth were the least likely age group to be aware they had HIV, remain in care, or achieve viral suppression. One of the most important things we can do to change this trend is to provide accurate, age-appropriate, and culturally sensitive information about HIV.

In the past, the United States has been wary of embracing comprehensive sexual health education for young people. The time has come to create policies that reflect the reality that many of today’s youth are sexually active. NYHAAD provides the opportunity to work collaboratively to build a baseline of health education, including HIV awareness, among today’s youth.

Working with our colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and United States Department of Education, we can better understand how youth hear and interpret HIV messages, begin to break down the issue of stigma, and think about how, when, and with what messages we can deliver understandable and actionable HIV information. With a full understanding of their values and needs, we can better design programs to meet those needs and ultimately improve health outcomes.

It is also important to recognize the impact that access to quality housing, employment, and education has on the HIV epidemic. We cannot fully address HIV if we do not also address the poverty and inequities that act as barriers to many young people in our current systems of care. Recognizing these systems were built by and for adults, we should work with younger generations to redesign these systems and more effectively tailor our services towards youth.

Much of the United States’ societal progress, including the civil rights and social justice movements, has been led by younger generations. When we engage youth in our HIV programs, we are honoring this history and encouraging them to take an active role in improving the overall health of the nation. In our work to end the HIV epidemic in America, I hope to get more young people involved in our strategic planning processes and think comprehensively about the services that young people need.

I’m excited about NYHAAD because I’m excited about our future. I can envision a world where new HIV transmissions are rare, newly-diagnosed individuals have immediate access to treatment and care that is free of stigma and discrimination, and all youth have access to accurate and culturally sensitive information about HIV.

Addressing HIV among American youth is a key part of ending the HIV epidemic in the United States. Whether you are a federal partner, community organization, or youth advocate, please join me in using NYHAAD to raise your voice as an advocate for comprehensive, age-appropriate sexual health education, and empowering today’s youth to play a part in building a healthier tomorrow.