When asked about the best way to prevent the transmission of HIV, teens gave the same answer over and over again: "Don't have sex." But as data from the latest Forsyth County Youth Risk Behavior survey shows, teens are having sex. The same survey shows that about half of those sexually active teens are having unprotected sex. According to Allison Mathews, executive director of the COMPASS Initiative Faith Coordinating Center and research fellow in Faith and Health at Wake Forest University, this type of risky behavior could result in the transmission of HIV.
"Oftentimes, they're not in stable homes," explained Matthews. "Or, you know, they're engaging in sexual behavior or drug use or something like that."
One of the reasons the protection might not be adequate can be traced back to what's being taught in schools.
"A lot of times schools don't, you know, don't allow teens to learn more about their sexual lives," said Mathews. "And so a lot of times they don't learn about HIV, or they may learn about HIV as just a, you know, as a virus. But they don't learn about it in regards to relationship dynamics, and like, and how to protect themselves and understanding their bodies and how things are changing and all of those things."
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is one of those things that's rarely discussed in schools when talking about HIV. According to the director of prevention at Triad Health Project, Corey Higgins, this drug could be a game-changer.
"PrEP is probably the most exciting and amazing tool that we have in HIV and HIV prevention," said Higgins. "It is a medication when taken daily, you're 99.9% protected against HIV."
This rate of efficacy is for HIV transmitted through sex. According to the CDC, that number drops to about 74 percent for transmission through drug use. As the executive director of Triad Health Project, Adriana Adams puts it, this drug can be just one more resource for every parent out there.
"Rather than thinking of it as, 'I'm enabling a poor decision,' making a decision to allow them to take PrEP is really helping to care for them long term," explained Adams. And I think then you have the conversation where you say, 'Look, I still don't want you to make risky decisions. I'm more concerned about you internally, your heart, who you are as a person ... all of those things, and making sure that you are really making smart decisions about your body and your health.'"
In North Carolina, minors can get tested for HIV without parental consent, but HIV prophylaxis does require permission from a parent/guardian. Most insurance companies will cover the cost and organizations like Triad Health Project can also provide resources for the uninsured.
Correction: A previous broadcast of this story misidentified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.