Programs Promote Testing and Treatment
At age 16, Christopher Barnhill exemplified the typical teenager – struggling with his identity, pondering his future – even getting ready for the prom.
"I had it all figured out about the prom," said Barnhill, who's now 25. "I looked forward to going and had selected a white tux to wear."
But Barnhill's care-free world soon changed. During a visit to a health fare he agreed to be tested for HIV. As fate would have it, he tested positive.
"When I found out that I was HIV-positive, I was like 'Oh my God,' and I said 'I guess it's time to start planning a funeral," Barnhill, an award-winning HIV/AIDS youth advocate and public speaker, said during an interview. "I had it all [figured out] that I was going to be buried in my white prom outfit since I wasn't going to be going to the prom."
Barnhill contracted HIV from his late mother. She died from AIDS in 1989, and Barnhill, who has worked with DC Metro TeenAIDS in Southeast for the past four years, recalled that no one in his home or his teachers at Bladensburg High School had talked much about HIV.
"When I revealed to my guardian that I was HIV-positive, that's when she disclosed to me that my mom died of AIDS," he said. "So knowing that, and not finding out I was HIV-positive until I was 16, I felt I had to get the message out to my peers on how to take [preventative] action."
Like Barnhill, most young people feel that when it comes to contracting diseases like HIV/AIDS, they're immune. But just like anyone else – including their parents and grandparents – they're also at risk.
To that end, local health officials have joined forces with Mayor Vincent Gray to step up preventative measures aimed at youth. In doing so, they're looking to significantly lower the number of cases with ongoing HIV prevention outreach and education efforts, which include programs on abstinence and getting youth to realize the importance of delaying their first sexual encounter.
"The incidences of HIV/AIDS has been significant among young people," said Dr. Gregory Pappas, head of the District's HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration. "The District [is on course] to help reduce the number of cases through [initiatives] centered around testing and education," he said, referencing the city's 2011 HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and TB Epidemiology Report.
"My [main] message in fighting the virus is to get tested and get treated."
As of December 2011, an estimated 1 in 20 District residents tested positive for HIV, meaning that at 11 times the national average, the city has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of infections in the nation. At the same time, studies show that new cases of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 who have contracted the disease, doubled over the past five years.
"The vast majority of these new infections are through heterosexual transmission," said Tyler Spencer, founder and president of The Grassroot Project in Northwest. The Project, which was launched in 2009 and partners with the District of Columbia Public School system, teams area college athletes with at-risk youth to educate them about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
"We were shocked when we learned what the city's statistics were," said Spencer, who added that while the current number of HIV-infected youth in D.C. is "relatively low," the Project's goal is to prevent infections before youth reach adulthood.
The Project, which offers an eight-week curriculum, targets youth ages 12 to 13 by going into the city's middle schools where Grassroot mentors provide instruction during physical education and health classes, Spencer said.
"We teach HIV basics about transmission and prevention, but also about general life skills," said Spencer, 26. He said having college athletes reach out to the students helps because they feel more comfortable discussing HIV with the athletes than with their teachers.
"The athletes fill an important niche because they're cooler than their parents and teachers but less judgmental than their peers," said Spencer.
Meanwhile, Pappas noted that up to 5,000 people with HIV – including a large number of African-American teens – in D.C. are unaware of their status.
"By being tested, you protect your health," Pappas said. "[Teens] also preserve the health of [their] friends, loved ones and community, because by being on medication and knowing [their] status, they're less likely to spread the disease."
Overall, the prevalence of HIV among District adults and youth now stands at 2.7 percent, according to the District's health report findings that were released in late June.
Today, Barnhill's work focuses on reaching students in the District's public and charter schools where he ensures they receive "quality information" through a curriculum called "Making Proud Choices."
"For the most part, young people are definitely listening and are getting the message loud and clear," Barnhill said. "But we're still concerned about those who don't really want to hear what we have to say by boasting that they already know everything there is to know about HIV/AIDS."