Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) have plagued the United States since 1981, and its incidence and prevalence have grown rapidly among minority populations ever since. However, many adolescents and young adults still do not understand the disease or the at-risk behaviors that can lead to its transmission, said Dr. Loretta Sweet Jemmott, a professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on HIV prevention.
"Often, young adults simply do not want to hear that their behaviors can harm them," Sweet Jemmott said. "They feel invulnerable. I try to show them that they are not, and that they need to protect themselves."
Although African Americans make up 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, they have accounted for 40 percent of the almost 1 million AIDS cases diagnosed since the start of the epidemic and approximately half of the 43,171 cases diagnosed in 2003 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
AIDS is caused by HIV, the virus that destroys the body's ability to fight infections and certain cancers by killing or impairing immune-system cells. According to the health Web site BlackHealthCare.com, HIV infection can be
transmitted in a variety of ways -- most commonly by unprotected sexual contact with an infected partner. It is also spread through contact with infected blood, drug needles and syringes, as well as from infected mother to fetus through pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding.
"Young adults should be told everything about HIV and AIDS. We can't sugarcoat it. We need to stop this epidemic as a community," said Sweet Jemmott, who is nationally recognized for her award-winning programs and materials that address major issues such as sex, teen pregnancy, HIV, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, puberty and drugs. These programs aim to reduce HIV-risk-related behavior among African American adolescents and are implemented internationally.
Sweet Jemmott said young people often do not understand the links between behavior and consequences. "They need to be shown how one behavior can affect another. They need help figuring out how to be safe.
"We live in a difficult time today. Young adults are getting bombarded with messages from media, clothing, their peers and their partners -- messages that encourage and glorify unsafe sexual practices," Sweet Jemmott said. "There are too many negative messages out there. I try to get them to look at the right message."
Her message is clear: Go out and get tested. "Get tested every six months. When it comes to HIV and AIDS, the earlier the diagnosis the better. The faster you receive treatment, the better your health outcomes will be," she said.