NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The number of Tennessee residents 15 to 24 years old who were newly diagnosed with HIV jumped by 32 percent between 2005 and 2009, the last year for which statistics are available, according to state health statistics.
"I remember holding the hands of people dying of AIDS in my 24 years of being in this field, but the young people I talk to have not held the hands of folks dying with AIDS," Victoria Harris, director of education for the Vanderbilt Comprehensive Care Center, which specializes in HIV treatment, told The Tennessean. "They don't have a reality of this virus."
Deaths in Tennessee for people with HIV dropped almost by half from 1995 to 1997, after Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy was introduced. The success of those drugs may have made some people complacent, but Scott Bryan, with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, said people "cannot assume that HIV is always, and certainly not easily, treatable."
For one thing, how well medications work depend on how soon HIV is detected and what mutations of the virus that person has contracted.
"There's a big myth out there that people who have HIV can have unsafe sex with other HIV-positive people. That it's OK," said Robertson Nash, a nurse practitioner with Vanderbilt Comprehensive Care Center. "It's actually very dangerous."
People having unprotected sex can make it worse by spreading mutations of the virus that are drug-resistant.
Almost one in six newly diagnosed people in 2007 was infected with a form of the virus that was resistant to at least one class of the drugs used to treat HIV. But 1 percent had mutations that were resistant to all three classes of drugs.
And there's no guarantee that the government will continue to subsidize the drugs for those who cannot afford them.
The drugs have been made widely available through the federally funded Ryan White program, but in 2009, the state temporarily put new applicants on a waiting list when the Tennessee AIDS Drug Assistance Program reached capacity.
And there is still confusion about what behaviors are safe, said Donald Alcendor, a professor with Meharry Medical College who works with the Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research.
He said that in talks with high school seniors about half of them wrongly think they can't get HIV from oral sex.
Men who have sex with men still make up the majority of new infections nationwide at 53 percent. Among that group, black men between 13 and 29 had more new infections than any other group. The CDC has designated HIV a crisis in African-American communities.
Among Hispanics, the most infections also occurred in the youngest age group. But among white men, the most new infections were found in those between 30 and 39.