BP, M.D. – HIV incidence rising among college students in southern New England

by Julia Harvey

A study published last month by researchers from Brown University and the Miriam Hospital indicates that the number of new infections of HIV may be increasing on college campuses across southern New England. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1.1 million people are infected with HIV in the U.S. Generally, the prevalence of HIV on college campuses is lower than the national average, and most HIV/AIDS related policy and funding has been directed towards reducing infection among men who have sex with men and minorities, groups that are disproportionately affected by the virus. President Barack Obama’s National AIDS Strategy outlines specific measures that focus heavily on combating HIV infection within these at-risk populations, and last year regular HIV screening became a covered benefit under the Affordable Care Act in an effort to reduce financial constraints and increase accessibility to testing.

However, about half of all new infections occur among those less than 25 years of age, which includes most college students. Furthermore, studies report that a significant proportion of college students have multiple sexual partners, use condoms intermittently, and engage in sexual activity while under the influence of alcohol or other substances, putting them at higher risk of contracting the virus.

The new study by Dr. Philip Chan and his colleagues reports that of 66 individuals diagnosed with HIV at the largest HIV clinic in southern New England, 17 percent were students and 12 percent were college or university students. This is a marked increase from a 2007 study in which college students only made up 6 percent of new infections.

Although many schools and local organizations provide free and confidential HIV testing, a 2010 survey by the American College Health Association indicated that just over 25 percent of college students have ever been tested. This means that the statistics reported in this recent study likely underestimate HIV prevalence on college campuses.

Staff members at college health centers report complacency among students and low perceptions of risk of contracting the disease. Most currently enrolled college students were born in the early 1990s and never witnessed firsthand the devastating impacts of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, when effective therapies were less widely available. Experts speculate that this temporal disconnect may have led to a reduced concern for risk reduction techniques among today’s youth.

The authors recommend that all college campuses offer free and confidential HIV testing and implement HIV awareness and prevention programs. While college students have not yet been the focus of HIV policy efforts, this study indicates that further research is needed, and future policy might consider targeting college students as part of a comprehensive HIV/AIDS strategy.


photo by 2011 Caribbean HIV Conference: http://www.flickr.com/photos/2011caribbeanhivconference/6372676879/