Health professionals discuss perception, awareness about HIV among college-aged students

Cast member Charlie Sheen poses at the premiere of his new film "Scary Movie 5" in Hollywood April 11, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Prouser
Cast member Charlie Sheen poses at the premiere of his new film "Scary Movie 5" in Hollywood April 11, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Niharika Mishra, a School of Engineering first-year student, said she heard rumors that HIV could spread by using a public bathroom.

This misconception about HIV/AIDS, among others, is common among students who lack education and discussion on the disease, said Quincy Bell, program coordinator for HIV Community Planning Support and Development Initiative at Rutgers.

“I think it’s important that college students talk to their sexual partners about HIV testing, and that open communication about this is the best way to stay safe,” Mishra said.

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the immune system, which is the body's natural defense against sickness. When the immune system is compromised, the HIV-infected individual contracts disease and infection more easily, according to With proper treatment, the chances of HIV progressing into AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency virus, drops significantly and an individual living with HIV can expect to live a healthy life.

Misconceptions such as Mishra's are fueled by lack of education, fear and stigma — and those three factors burst open when former "Two and Half Lives" actor Charlie Sheen announced his HIV-positive status in late November, Bell said.

People erupted on social media about the predictability of Sheen's contraction of HIV, with many citing the actor's history of bedding hundreds of women, using illicit drugs and sarcastically calling the diagnosis "shocking."

“Over 30 years later, many still believe that HIV remains as gay man’s disease and that it’s an issue that is of no concern to them. The reality is that every sexually active adult is at risk of HIV infection and should be aware of how to protect themselves and their partners,” Twitter user "OriginalLeeMays" said.

Sharing meals and bathrooms with people who are HIV positive are far out of reach in terms of HIV transmission, said Francesca Maresca, director of Health Outreach Promotion and Education at Rutgers.

Compared to the past, Maresca said college students are not as worried about HIV/AIDS now.

“I don’t know that college students necessarily think of it as an issue for them to think about. It’s a very different world now. Back several years ago, everybody was worried about HIV, and I just don’t think students have that same consciousness of HIV as they did,” she said.

In 2015, Bell said HIV is a manageable disease, but the stigma attached to the disease stops many people from finding out their status. Many people test late, once their immune system has already been damaged and they are unable to get the full benefit from HIV treatment.

The lack of awareness fuels stigma and fear of HIV even when misconceptions are disproven, Bell said.

“HIV medications, called anti-retrovirals have significantly changed the course of HIV infection since the early days of the epidemic and with the proper care and treatment, you can live a healthy life. The sooner you take steps to protect your health, the better, which is why regular testing is so vital to early detection and treatment,” he said.

Sheen’s HIV-positive status will help raise awareness about the disease, Maresca said.

From the moment Sheen came out as HIV positive, people came out from the woodwork to support Sheen and to advocate for good health practices.

"Charlie Sheen has lived his life very recklessly but still sorry to hear he has HIV," tweeted comedian Fortune Feimster on Nov. 16. "Hopefully this helps people remember to be safe."

Any time a public figure comes out as HIV positive, it does promote awareness because people talk about it, Maresca said.

"He has never made any effort to hide that he has had multiple sexual partners, unprotected sex or sex under the influence of alcohol and other drugs," she said. "He’s not making any excuses. I think it will lead to some awareness."

In today’s electronic age, Bell said the answer to spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS is as simple as typing "HIV facts" into a web browser.

There are international, federal, state, community-based and people-focused resources that provide insight on anything related to HIV, from PrEP (Pre- Exposure Prophylaxis) and ART (Antiretroviral treatment) to testing and condoms, Bell said. 

Since 2010, youths age 13 to 24 years old account for more than 26 percent of new HIV infections each year, yet only about 34.5 percent of Americans age 18 to 24 years old have been tested for HIV, he said.

"Arming yourself with the knowledge of your own HIV status is just the first of many steps to keep you and your partners safe,” Bell said.

HIV needs to be brought out of the closet, he said. More than 30 years into the epidemic, youths continue to be among those most affected by HIV.

“For nearly a decade, we have held new infections in the United States at 50,000 per year. While this is a testament to the success of prevention and health education efforts, more can be done to demystify and destigmatize the virus,” he said.

Rutgers Health Services offers free HIV testing on a monthly basis, she said.

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