SAN FRANCISCO — By the time today's teenagers were old enough to read, new drugs were available that meant HIV was no longer a death sentence.
But with infections among youth and young adults in the U.S. still rising, one senior at The Urban School of San Francisco decided his peers needed more than just another classroom lesson.
Nearly all 75 members of the senior class got tested for HIV in the school gym Friday.
"A lot of kids have never thought about it," said Oliver Hamilton, 17, who organized the testing. "The goal . is to make HIV relevant."
The testing was voluntary, and organizers of the unusual event will not make any results public.
Tens of thousands of new HIV infections are diagnosed in the U.S. annually. Nearly a third of those involve youth and adults under 30, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Hamilton and the classmates he enlisted say it's important for teens to recognize that HIV/AIDS is their generation's disease, too – not just something that happened in the 1980s or afflicts only intravenous drug users and men who have sex with men.
Yet they also say that at a high school, any event that touches on such an intimate and often stigmatized health issue is a delicate endeavor.
In a class of just 75 students, news and gossip travel quickly.
"It's like CNN," said Daniel Alexander, 18. Of the HIV screening, he said, "It's definitely a test of our maturity."
Students attended forums in recent days to learn about HIV and the importance of respecting one another's privacy.
The students believe they're the first in U.S. to organize voluntary HIV testing for high school students, even though the CDC recommends that everyone ages 13 to 64 know their HIV status. Under California law, minors 12 and older can obtain testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases without their parents' permission.
Students at Urban signed their own consent forms to be tested. Administrators and students at the $32,000-per-year private school just a block off Haight Street say there was little friction with parents over the plan.
"It just made sense to me, especially considering the latest statistics with teens and this disease," said Diane Welch, co-president of the parents association at Urban, where her daughter is a senior. "It just makes sense that this generation start monitoring their HIV status as a regular part of their health care routine."
It's also the message of Dr. Marcus Conant, who has mentored Hamilton as an assistant in his office and who will conduct the school's tests.
As a dermatologist working in San Francisco in the early 1980s, Conant began seeing a sudden surge in cases of Kaposi's sarcoma among young gay men. An otherwise extremely rare disease, Koposi's sarcoma afflicts patients with compromised immune systems.
Conant recognized that something unusual and frightening was happening. He soon became one of the first physicians in the U.S. to diagnose and treat AIDS.
Today, Conant believes that HIV testing more than any other single measure will contribute the most to finally eradicating the disease. People who know they're infected are more likely to take steps to prevent spreading the disease to others, he says, and regular use of anti-viral drugs can make an infected individual almost non-contagious.
"Testing actually increases responsibility," Conant said. "What we really need to do to stop this disease in America is to get everybody tested."
Conant and Hamilton together hope that Friday's event can serve as a model that will spread to other schools in San Francisco.
They hope that other private schools with their greater resources and independence will step up and ultimately demonstrate to the public school system as well that such a program is possible despite privacy concerns and the frank talk about sex and drugs that would be required.
Students at Urban say setting an example that shows HIV testing in high schools can work is part of the incentive to handle the experience like adults.
Though the test being used – simple swab of the inside of the mouth – can provide same-day results, students and administrators agreed that they should receive their results in private and at home. They will hear via telephone or email on Tuesday.
If a student tests positive, he or she will get a call from Conant personally.
Conant says the likelihood of these affluent, highly educated students testing positive is remote. They have demographics working in their favor, and don't appear to fall into any high-risk groups. But student organizers say getting tested is also about a rite of passage.
"It's helping people's awareness about responsibility," said Rayhannah Dar, 17. "It's showing me how responsible I need to be for others and myself."