This letter might contain some unsettling news but it is based on facts that cannot be easily dismissed even if they affect our sensibilities. However, there is good news too.
Norfolk and its surrounding environs now rank among the top communities in Virginia for AIDS cases (Virginia Department of Health). Almost incredibly, Norfolk ranks #2 in the nation for Chlamydia and #3 for Gonorrhea (U.S. Centers for Disease Control). By any conservative measurement, these startling numbers should be worrisome to all residents that love Hampton Roads as the best place to live and bring up their families.
How this has happened is not quite clear but HR boasts a growing population with a large number of people who move in, around, and out of the region fairly frequently. We are not insulated from outside influences like more rural or slow-growth areas.
The old stereotypes of the 1980s of well-known, high-risk populations no longer hold water 30 years into the epidemic. Increasingly the AIDS epidemic has become more heterosexually oriented and cuts across economic and ethnic lines. The purpose of this letter is to move beyond the history and suggest positive steps that can be taken to reverse the continuing exponential growth of this epidemic of sexual, viral infections and diseases among vulnerable youth.
Adults have received much information over the years and are well-positioned to understand what steps are needed to protect themselves and their partners. Whether they choose to heed the ample warnings is another matter. Some people are at higher risk because of unstable relationships, economic distress or perhaps addictions.
There are many fine agencies in Hampton Roads that are doing their best to help in this fight. However, the problem is that HIV/AIDS is growing, not retreating.
My focus is solely on adolescents. We are dedicated to educating and protecting maturing teens as they enter adulthood and begin sex. I have been involved in this campaign since doing my research at Harvard University. What I discovered was that sexually active teens (a majority) would be the next major wave of HIV with many developing AIDS in their lifetime – unaware of their exposure to this silent danger.
For 17 years I have devoted my life to developing more effective AIDS prevention programs to convince teens to take HIV seriously and learn how to protect their health.
I set up the Internet’s first website on AIDS for teens. 400,000 teens have been trained as peer teachers. Now we use all forms of social media to stay connected.
I wish I could report that all these efforts have paid off. Yes, young lives have been saved but not nearly enough. UNAIDS reports that nearly 50% of all new cases in the world occur among 24 year olds and younger. The CDC reports 25% of new cases occur among teens and college age youth, some of whom you might know and love. There is hope for the future – but all adults, parents, teachers, politicians, the business community, media and civic leaders must get involved and mobilize.
The key issue now is saving the young generation because they are our future. We can reverse the disturbing trends in Norfolk and HR by supporting school programs that are proactive, not retroactive. Some adults might prefer: “Just say ‘No’ to sex” and hope it works. However, all reputable studies show this kind of censorship of biological facts is dismissed by youth. The genie is out of the bottle, teens are having sex, and honest advice is needed. I do tell teens the serious consequences for early and unprotected sex.
TA-PC has been a proven leader – without receiving government money. We rely on private donors making tax-deductible donations and thousands of committed young student interns and helpers. Empowered volunteers make the best messengers to their generation. I call this movement “PeerCorps” (pronounced like Peace or Marine Corps). These young people are heroes in my book. Just as the HIV virus spreads from one partner to many victims, we spread the healthy prevention message from one to many others in our efforts to save young lives.
We are relatively new to HR. However, our impact has already been felt. Perhaps you have seen our story on TV or in the press. If you see TA-PC youth passing out information cards and talking to teens on the streets about the new oral swab home tests, please stop and say hello. Look over our materials (two cards are enclosed) and offer a word of encouragement. They are doing this important work, not for pay, but for the highest altruistic motives. I remain a volunteer because I could not ask them to do something that I was not prepared to do.
Please look over the list of HR businesses that have donated their services to us. Without them we would not have the success that we are having.
Dr. John Chittick