WASHINGTON — There are currently more than 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States. Tens of thousands of those people are children and teens. Young people ages 13 to 24 represent 20% of new HIV diagnoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Children's National Hospital is leading the way in treatment for those youth. But they are especially focused on prevention and want to get the word out about a simple way to prevent it.
The pediatric program at Children's National was one of the first in the country. More than 30 years later, they are still pushing to educate those most at risk. Nationwide, there are fewer than 50 cases of children who acquire HIV from their mothers.
"The U.S. as a nation is very close to eliminating mother-to-child transmission, however, in our area, we still saw two cases of transmission in 2019," said Dr. Natella Rakhmanina, Director of HIV Prevention and Treatment Program at Children's National.
But Dr. Rakhmanina said in young people, cases through sexual contact are a big concern. PrEP, an HIV prevention drug, has been a game-changer in this epidemic. The pill that prevents the disease can now even be administered through a shot as of Dec. 2021.
The problem: Very few young people are using it.
"Only 11% of adolescents and young people in the U.S. are prescribed PrEP. That's quite low compared to adults. We are not doing enough right now for prevention," Dr. Rakhmanina said.
Recent statistics show the program continues to receive one to two new referrals each month with young people being newly diagnosed with HIV. The average young person is about 17 years old. All are cases that could have been prevented.
HIV stigma, access, and not enough awareness are blocking PrEP from those who need it the most. Children's National Hospital is working to change that, partnering with local high schools to get the word out.
"The awareness of HIV is still quite low. I think where we really need to do better is having all caregivers be aware that this option exists," said Dr. Rakhmanina.
That option includes using the prevention drug for six months, or however long someone feels it is necessary. Doctors said it is important for more young people, who are sexually active, to know this is an option for them, especially during those crucial years.
The program's educational efforts include getting more pediatricians and primary care physicians on board to prescribing HIV prevention drugs, as well becoming more comfortable having detailed sexual health conversations with their patients.
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Click here for resources for families and children impacted by HIV.