More than half of the people infected with HIV are under the age of 25. But many of the young Americans living with the disease are actively working to make sure their peers know how to avoid the virus. They also want to share their hopeful message: living with HIV/AIDS no longer has to be a death sentence.
Asia Johnson runs a youth group in Houston, Texas, because she wants children to know early on about safe sex and AIDS prevention. Chris Rothermel attends every political event he can in Washington, D.C., to insure politicians never forget the disease is right there in front of them. Marvelyn Brown regularly speaks candidly in public about her HIV-positive status in Nashville, Tennessee, to try and break the cycle of discrimination there.
They were among hundreds of young AIDS activists from across the country who met in Philadelphia recently for a conference sponsored by the National Association of People with AIDS. Delegates ranging in age from 11-25 spent the weekend sharing stories, making friends and getting the latest information about HIV/AIDS prevention, medications and education.
One issue they all agreed on is the importance of teaching safer sex practices, not just abstinence in health classes in the nation's schools. For years, there's been increasing political and social pressure to emphasize abstinence as the only sure way to prevent AIDS and pregnancy, and to avoid any discussion of condoms and other forms of contraception.
And the message here was that young people are engaging in risky behavior and telling them to abstain is not enough. "We need to go to the schools and teach kids about condoms, how to use condoms," Johnny Guaylupo insisted. "We need more funds for people to go out and give out condoms."
The young New Yorker was honored at the conference for doing just that: canvassing the streets of the city, doing outreach, handing out condoms, talking about HIV prevention and education, and even providing access to free HIV tests via mobile units on the street.
Johnny's experience growing up gay in the Bronx was full of stigma and discrimination. As Catholics, he and other young Latino gay men in his neighborhood were viewed as sinners. He hopes his courage to come out will have a ripple effect and help break the cycle of discrimination brought on by religious beliefs and ignorance.
"I came out publicly about my HIV last year and I decided to speak out. And to just talk about my life and the issues I am going through. And I feel that that would raise awareness," he explained. "And especially in the Bronx where I come from a lot of Latino gay, young gay guys are getting infected and not knowing. And some of them probably do know but they scared to get tested. They just don't want to go through it."
The young people at this conference spoke repeatedly about dealing with public scorn in their communities, their schools and even in their own homes. That wasn't the case for Hydeia Broadbent, who was born with the virus and has always had her mother's support.
Hydeia has been speaking out about AIDS since she was a child. Now 22, she has her own national AIDS outreach program which uses hip-hop music to reach out to kids both with and without HIV. She believes the number one cause of AIDS in young people today is unsafe sex. "You know there is all types of crazy sex nowadays so the kids are putting themselves more at risk," she said. "People are just not putting two and two together. [They] think, 'Well, if I have oral sex I can't get it,' which is not true. And this is what the kids are thinking. That's why the conference and people, their focus is on sex because the kids don't know. They are not educated."
But educating people about AIDS can be overwhelming, according to Michael Hodges, an HIV/AIDS care advocate and peer educator working with teens and young adults in Washington, D.C. "You get confused sometimes," he admitted. "You find the work that you are doing is hard to do or you find that working with the young people is challenging. And you are still trying to create new innovative ways or tactics to help link these young people into care or get them educated about HIV. And sometimes you just feel like you are going around in a circle because everything you create, it works for a little while. Then," he added with a rueful laugh, "it doesn't work anymore."
According to the latest report by the United Nations and World Health Organization, more than 40.3 million people are living with AIDS world-wide. More than three million people died of AIDS-related illnesses last year; of these, more than 500,000 were children.
While the statistics can be overwhelming, Jurnee Smollett said you can't let them wear you down. The television and film actress has been advocating on behalf of HIV-positive youth in the U.S. and South Africa since she was 12. She's hopeful the work and research on HIV/AIDS education and prevention that has been done in the United States will have a global impact. As she put it, "Anything that we do here is going to help the greater cause because if we can just like almost train little soldiers here and make America an example and then it would be a ripple effect in different countries. It would definitely work in South Africa. It's just -- you gotta start somewhere."
The kids and the educators left the conference feeling energized. For one long weekend, they'd felt completely accepted. Hydeia Broadbent said while there is still much work to be done, she hopes their message inspires HIV-positive young people everywhere to come out and share their stories so others will follow their lead. "I just wanted my friends to be able to say 'I have AIDS' and be accepted for who they were. And not be ashamed because this is a part of us, we can't get rid of it. And if you don't like me because I have AIDS or I cannot tell you that I have AIDS, then you truly don't like me as a person."